If you are looking for a sure bet one way or the other this weekend, avoid this match. Orlando City will be missing six probable starters and are coming off a game which, despite its dramatic finish, was still just one point earned at home against lowly D.C. United. For the Loons, the question will be whether the team that staged a late comeback against San Jose will show up, or the team that conceded two goals in 90 seconds. Finally, the match represents the return of both Kevin Molino and coach Adrian Heath to Orlando, adding some intangible intensity and drama to the night. Anything could happen.
In the first ever meeting between the two clubs last year, Minnesota beat Orlando 1-0 at home during Pride Night (there is a lion joke in there somewhere). Christian Ramirez took a backheel pass from Johan Venegas and dribbled around Joe Bendik to slot home the lone goal on the night. The game was also memorable for Ibson’s legendary “dribble in a circle on his knees around four Lions before hitting his feet and getting rid of the ball” move. Kevin Molino was sick that evening, so Saturday’s game will be the winger’s first chance to face his old club.
Sorin Stoica is manning his first MLS game of the year in this matchup. His average numbers for yellows per game in 2017 put him around the middle of the pack among referees last year. However, his six penalties and six dissent cards last year easily put him out in front of his referee peers (he was only head referee for ten matches). Both clubs may want to not give Stoica no lines, and keep their hands to themselves.
F Dom Dwyer (quad strain) – Out
M Josue Colman (thigh bruise) – Out
M Oriol Rosell (fitness) – Out
M Dillon Powers (ankle injury) – Out
GK Mason Stajduhar (Localized Ewing Sarcoma) – Out
M Sacha Klejstan (suspended) – Out
M Pierre Da Silva (suspended) – Out
D PC (suspended) – Out
M Sam Cronin (neck injury) – Out
F Abu Danladi (left hamstring injury) – Out
Any analysis of this match has to start with what is missing. Orlando City largely retooled their entire lineup heading into this year after a dismal 2017, and we have yet to see how that work has panned out due to copious injuries and suspensions. The Lions’ likely attacking midfielder will be a repurposed defensive midfielder in Yoshi Yotun, key winger Justin Meram will likely play as a second striker, and whoever fills in as a defensive midfielder will be shielding a very young and very new defensive line. If you are a Minnesota fan, though one never cheers for an injury, you have to feel like you are catching this team at the right time.
The Loons will also be defined by what they are missing. One of the key stories from the club’s 3-2 capitulation in San Jose was the lack of a successful, Ozzie Alonso-style defensive midfielder that can clean up mistakes and muddy the midfield. Sam Cronin is out for the foreseeable future, and new signing Luiz Fernando is waiting for paperwork to be able to join the team. A back line that really did not need extra time to gel, but still made individual errors across the board, will not be shielded well against Orlando. Ibson, Rasmus Schüller, Collin Martin, and even Collen Warner are probably better fits as a box-to-box midfielder than as a No. 6. That is worrisome.
Less worrisome is the shape of Minnesota’s lineup against the shape of Orlando’s lineup. Jason Kreis loves a 4-4-2 lineup with a diamond midfield, so much so that he may one day have a child and name it “Diamond.” If the team more or less sticks to that shape on Saturday, it may behoove the wing-heavy Loons. One potential liability of the diamond midfield is that it can either leave the wings exposed or, if those wingers really push out wide, it can leave a ton of space in the middle of the field. This means either that Minnesota may have plenty of room to operate down the sides of the field, which appear to be where it is most likely to spring an attack from at this point, or that the central midfielders might have a bit more time on the ball to find that perfect final pass, which has been a key challenge throughout preseason and against San Jose. If Orlando pushes its full backs high to cover the flanks and keep the diamond tight in the middle, then Heath had better have someone like Miguel Ibarra ready to go and make deep, quick, even out-of-position runs to exploit the area they leave behind.
As it was against the Earthquakes, the midfield battle will dictate the winner. Can either team effectively use its defensive midfield hole to make things tough for the opponent? Can Minnesota take advantage of the space Orlando’s shape will force them to vacate? I see Orlando pushing its wing backs higher to support the midfield and keeping things tough for the Loons there. Minnesota, meanwhile, will likely play inside out as it often does when the midfield gets crowded, so expect the passing charts to have a lot of arrows ending on the wings. The goals, then, are less likely to come from clinical dicing of the opponent (for either team) and more likely from a momentary lapse that creates an opportunity. It may not be a great night for Total Football.
Keep Minnesota covered on the counter, and they will be fine. Their big weakness will come in letting the Loons get in behind full backs that are upfield, so if they can track back to cover and use their No. 6 and center backs to cover a lot of space, they will be in good shape.
There has to be an answer to the “final ball” question. Getting into a spot to challenge opposing defenses has not been totally vacant for Minnesota, but how do we put that last pass together that catches a runner streaking toward the end line, or sets free a striker playing off a defender’s back shoulder? Each of the team’s two goals last week came off a Hail Mary cross or a stellar individual effort on the ball. That is fun, but unsustainable.
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Tags: Adrian Heath, Colin Martin, Collen Warner, Dom Dwyer, Ibson, Jason Kreis, Joe Bendik, Josue Colman, Justin Meram, Kevin Molino, Luiz Fernando, Miguel Ibarra, Minnesota United FC, Orlando City SC, rasmus schuller, Sacha Klejstan, Sam Cronin, San Jose Earthquakes, Yoshi Yotun