The New England Revolution might only trail Orlando City SC by a point in the standings, but the Lions have a game in hand. Both teams have suffered through some rough officiating decisions, but can the second year expansion side keep up their current pace and make the playoffs?
We check in with The Mane Land's Michael Citro to break down OCSC ahead of tomorrow's nationally televised game from the Citrus Bowl.
1. I watched a decent amount of your game last Friday against the Union, and Philly's offside wall aside, can you really be gutted by a loss on a free kick that good?
Yes. You can easily be gutted when you're moments away from a tough road point, in a battle for first place in the conference, with four starters missing from the lineup.This was a bridge game to getting a few guys back from injury and getting Julio Baptista fully integrated from the team and the Lions nearly survived it. It felt like Orlando City did enough to earn a point. It could be an expensive miss at the end of the season, especially considering the waved off goal against RSL and the penalty no-call against Chicago. That's five dropped points that didn't need to be dropped. Excuse me, I need alcohol now.
2. Cyle Larin is good at soccer and also attended school at the magnificent University of Connecticut, which is in New England. There's no question, just gush about your Canadian goal machine.
Larin is ridiculously strong in the box, getting on the end of crosses both in the air and on the turf. His touch on the goal that started the comeback against RSL on opening day was insanely good. He is still learning the game in many ways and could use some more experience playing with his back to goal, as well as in bringing his midfielders into the attack, so he's only scratching the surface of how good he can be. His absence was certainly felt against Philadelphia last weekend. Simply put, the Canadian international has been killing it since being installed as the starter at Portland last year. We call him Kid Fantastic for a reason.
3. Last year the OCSC defense allowed 56 goals, what's the biggest difference this year on that side of the ball? Is it personnel, chemistry, a little bit of everything? Is Brek Shea actually a decent left back now?
It's a combination of things. Seb Hines has emerged as a solid MLS center back, displacing Aurelien Collin from the first-choice starting lineup. Collin has a tendency to wander a bit and pull the back line out of shape. Playing next to him, before suffering a head injury against Portland, is 19-year-old Tommy Redding. When David Mateos injured his hamstring before the season started it may have been a blessing in disguise. Redding stepped in and has performed way beyond expectations in keeping some of the league's best at bay, notably a stellar performance against David Villa and New York City FC. Hines and Redding are far from spectacular to watch but at the end of the game, you look up and they've handled guys like Villa, Adi, Igboananike, etc.
Another factor is the play of Joe Bendik in goal. The former Toronto FC keeper has been an outstanding shot stopper this season. He could still use some development in playing crosses and long balls over the top, but he's made some vital saves against the likes of Diego Valeri and Mix Diskerud in recent weeks that have earned the club points. The defensive midfield has also been great. Adrian Heath has switched from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-2-3-1 or at times a 4-3-3 this season. The extra coverage in central midfield has helped due to early season suspensions to Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren, who are one of the most underrated tandems in MLS. Servando Carrasco has also performed well in central midfield.
Finally, the attacking midfielders are tracking back. Kevin Molino isn't known for his defense but he's been helpful in dropping back to help break up play. Even the offensive minded Carlos Rivas has been helpful in defense in his limited playing time, particularly against NYCFC. As for Brek Shea, he forced Patrick Vieira to sub an ineffective Khiry Shelton off at halftime. Shea has played pretty well, although he's still good for a nervous moment or two and a silly challenge per game. But he gives the team width and his runs help provide room on the left side of midfield for Kaká.
It all really depends on who is capable of returning. Larin should hopefully be ready to go, but Adrian Heath may opt to give Cristian Higuita another game off to rest a groin injury, and we're not sure if Redding is still dealing with his (well let's just call it what it is) concussion. If I have to guess right now, I'd say it'll look something like this:
Joe Bendik; Brek Shea, Seb Hines, Aurelien Collin or Tommy Redding, Rafael Ramos; Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco, Darwin Ceren; Kaká, Kevin Molino; Cyle Larin.
Orlando City has been generating chances at home, although the team was wasteful in the first two home matches. The Portland game was another matter, with the Lions firing on all cylinders. Kaká seems to play his best at home. So, I'll say 2-1 to the hosts.