Orlando City SC is in its first season in Major League Soccer and Saturday's match will be the first meeting between the side and Columbus Crew SC.
The Black and Gold return home after a fairly successful two-game road trip. After a 10 day layoff, Crew SC travelled across the continent for a midweek 2-2 draw with the Vancouver Whitecaps where they led twice. The following Saturday, Columbus was in Massachusetts for a well-fought 0-0 tie with the New England Revolution.
It's been an up and down year for Orlando, but they enter this game with the side's best result of the year, a 2-0 victory over the Portland Timbers on the road. Former World Player of the Year, Kaka, leads Orlando in goals on the year with three, two of those coming from set pieces.
There's not much film on Orlando, so we turned to an expert in Michael, SB Nation's the Mane Lands Managing Editor, Michael Citro to provide insight into what to expect from Orlando this weekend.
Questions for The Mane Land
Massive Report: So this Kaka guy. We hear he's pretty good. How has the former Ballon d'Or winner done with his new side? At 32-years old, does he still have enough in the tank to help carry the expansion club to the playoffs?
The Mane Land: Kaká has been everything we expected and more. He's still got great vision and feet. He's fit and looks like he's in wonderful shape, and is way more pleasant to be around than virtually any other superstar player. He's somehow managed to stay humble despite his worldwide fame and vast wealth. The MLS season is a grind though, and it will be interesting to see if his body can hold out, especially playing home games on turf. If he does stay healthy (and his supporting cast does too) this team can absolutely make the playoffs, assuming the club starts scoring goals at home.
MR: Piecing together a team from other MLS sides isn't always easy but Orlando has started off the season brightly. Aside from the aforementioned Kaka, who should Crew SC fans be aware of coming into this match?
TML: Since Crew fans are already likely well aware of left back Brek Shea and center back Aurelien Collin, I'll say right back Rafael Ramos, attacking midfielder Kevin Molino, defensive midfielder Amobi Okugo and forward Cyle Larin.
Ramos, a U-20 international for Portugal, has been a revelation at right back, controlling the ball, getting forward and keeping opposing left side attackers honest. Molino is a Trinidad and Tobago international who broke Dom Dwyer's USL goal scoring record last season. He has yet to open his account in MLS but he's been dangerous every game and has fantastic chemistry with Kaká. Okugo has been in MLS for a few years with the Philadelphia Union but largely played out of position at center back there. With Orlando City, Okugo is in his natural No. 6 role and has been outstanding at breaking up play and supporting the defenders who get forward. Larin was the No. 1 pick in the SuperDraft this year and scored his first goal in his first start Sunday in the Lions' win at Portland.
MR: For fans who haven't had the opportunity to see Orlando play yet this season, what kind of match should they expect? Many teams have come to MAPFRE Stadium and either sat back and let the Black and Gold possess in front of them or pressed high. Do you expect either of these tactics or something altogether different?
TML: Orlando City typically favors a 4-2-3-1 that prefers to possess the ball and attack. It makes them susceptible at times on the counter, but with Collin and Okugo in the spine, shots on goal against have been limited so far. Seb Hines has been quietly solid in central defense with Collin and both Shea and Ramos possess the speed to get back. The Lions will look for quick interchanges of passing to set up scoring chances, generally running through Kaká and Molino. Larin's natural instinct for making runs and ability to find space has helped open the midfield for Orlando in the last two games against Portland and D.C. United. The attack looks a lot like the Crew's in style if not always in formation.
MR: Columbus fans are still thankful, but why the hell did Orlando City elect to take Jairo Arrieta over Ben Speas?
TML: Honestly, I don't know. They ultimately used Arrieta to get an additional international slot, which was useful with signing Larin, a Canadian international. Since striker was a problem early in the season, Arrieta would have been a valuable guy to have. Also, I'd have preferred Orlando had kept the versatile Eric Gehrig. But it's not like the team hasn't done well without both, so I guess Adrian Heath knows what he's doing.
MR: Changing the discussion for a second... As you are an Ohio State fan and write about the program, and many Crew SC fans also support the Buckeyes, what are your thoughts on the quarterback situation heading into the fall. Who do you think wins the job and why?
TML: Ah, the most important question of our time! While I appreciate everything that Cardale Jones did for those three magical postseason games, I think J.T. Barrett ultimately claims the job. I don't think Braxton Miller will be 100% healed in time for serious fall competition and may not be at full strength until a few weeks into the season.
In my opinion Barrett will win for the same reason he did last year -- the coaches trust him to run more of the offense and make more of the right reads than Jones. The championship run made a lot of people forget that Barrett was a serious contender in the Heisman race. I love me some 12-Gauge, but J.T. broke records by guys named Troy Smith and Drew Brees last year. As a freshman. #TeamJT
Questions for Massive Report
The Mane Land: Who are three Crew players (expected to play this weekend) that Orlando City fans should know about?
Massive Report: Federico Higuain, the older brother of Gonzalo Higuain, is certainly the first. He is the team's playmaker, the No. 10. He moves all over the pitch to get the ball and creates for his teammates. Playing in Columbus doesn't get him the recognition he might at other teams around the league, but he's certainly one of MLS' top players.
Wil Trapp is the heart of the team. The Homegrown central midfielder really makes things go in the center of the pitch. He not only sits deep and distributes the ball like any defensive midfielder, but operates as cover defensively, dropping into the middle of the defense, as the wing backs get forward to create the width of Crew SC's formation. His ability to break up plays before the happen saves the defense a lot of work. He also has really developed his offensive game over his first two years in the league, spraying the ball around from his deep-lying position. Trapp missed the last game with concussion-like symptoms but another week off should hopefully see him restored to the lineup.
Justin Meram had a breakout year in 2014 with 11 goals and four assists. After beginning the season coming off the bench, the former forward locked down the left side of the Black and Gold's midfield, cutting in on his preferred right foot frequently to cause havoc. He earned his first call-up to the Iraqi national team last year and has since made 13 appearances. His speed, one v. one ability, and long-range shooting make him someone in which Orlando's right side will have to constantly be aware.
TML: What have you learned about this year's Columbus team through the first few MLS games this season?
MR: It's been tough to learn much about this side because of inconsistent lineups and some strange scheduling. Crew SC is yet to be able to roll out the same starting XI in consecutive games this year due to international call-ups, injuries, and suspensions. What this has indicated is that there is a good amount of depth in the team, as players like Kristinn Steindorsson, Mohammed Saeid, and Chris Klute have done well covering for unavailable players.
The schedule also hasn't helped. After playing the first two weekends, Columbus had an off week, a game, 10 days off, then two games in four days across the continent. Although many of the players returned from a year ago, the Black and Gold are still developing cohesiveness in this new season.
There have been moments of brilliance from this team, but it has been hard to asses the play too much because of all the changes and time off.
TML: What are the major strengths and weaknesses of the team at this point?
MR: The talented depth in the midfield is certainly a strength so far. Starters Meram, Trapp, Higuain and Tony Tchani have all missed time and Ben Speas, Steindorsson and Saeid have come in and down well. Steindorsson and Saeid were added in the offseason, so they are still learning, but it's good to have talent available off the bench when needed.
A weakness thus far has been on defense. The team has allowed five goals in five games with two shutouts, but there have been some uncharacteristic mistakes made that have allowed goals. Club captain Michael Parkhurst was a rock along the back line a year ago, but gave the ball away that led directly to a goal against the New York Red Bulls and was out of position on a quick throw in that ended in a goal against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Fortunately, this weakness is something that can be fixed and Parkhurst, along with fellow center back Emanuel Pogatetz, should be back to a solid defensive partnership.
TML: What are the fans' expectations for the club, both realistic and unrealistic?
MR: Expectations were certainly high in the preseason. It took some time last year, but the team really came together over the second half of the season. After making the playoffs for the first time since 2011, fans of the Black and Gold expect more of the same this year. Making the playoffs again is the minimum requirement for this team and many fans think the club can make a serious run at MLS Cup.