The tides change quickly in soccer, and right now the tide at the feet of Columbus Crew SC seems, suddenly, to be rising dangerously high and with a mysterious sense of menace. What lies under the water?
The Black & Gold have won just one of their last five matches. They've failed to win in their last six road games and have failed to score in their last three. Columbus has also allowed at least two goals in each of its last four matches, and it is really hard to win consistently at that rate.
Take all that in, and then consider that Crew SC now has to travel to central Florida to take on an Orlando City side that has not only shown some positive signs recently — a two-goal rally against one of the East's best in the New England Revolution, a late loss to D.C. United after the Lions looked the better team for much of the 90 minutes, a bludgeoning of defending MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy and a draw on the road while playing with 10 men against the San Jose Earthquakes (a team that defeated Columbus 2-0 two weeks ago in a similar situation).
Oh, and the team in purple is probably not real happy with getting smacked around in Columbus earlier in the season.
Who are Crew SC? Who is Orlando City? There are questions for both heading into their showdown on Saturday. Here's a breakdown of what Columbus may face.
THE ORLANDO ATTACK
The Lions paid a lot of money for Kaka, and so he flies their banner. That's fair, but a look at the numbers are interesting, as OCSC definitely moves the ball around the field. In fact, their approach to the game is not unlike Columbus. The fullbacks get involved and possession is critical. Orlando City's 52.2 percent possession is fifth in the league and is actually ahead of the Black & Gold's rate (CCSC is seventh). Orlando's passing success rate (82.4 percent) is best in the league just percentage points ahead of...you guessed it, Crew SC.
Kaka is, undoubtedly, the team's top playmaker. He leads the team with 23 key passes, is ninth in the league in expected goals (he currently has five) and is seventh in the league in xG + xA (expected goals plus expected assists). However, while his touch percentage (the percentage of his team's total touches that he takes) is relatively high .107, that is actually third on the team behind defensive midfielders Cristian Higuita and Darwin Ceren and barely ahead of right back A.J. Ramos (.106). For comparison's sake, he comes in behind Columbus' Federico Higuain, Tony Tchani and, when they were playing/with the team, Hernan Grana and Will Trapp.
In other words, he provides less rhythm for his side than you might think, at least on the ball. His influence comes from his creativity and his gravity — his ability to draw defensive attention as he moves around the field.
Fellow Brazilian Ramos has emerged as one of the attack's key cogs, especially since his hot-headed red card against Columbus. He sees a lot of the ball and is fearless flying up the right flank and overlapping with right wing Eric Avila, who will pinch in and has been in good form as of late.
Orlando City runs 37 percent of it's attacking build through the right, which in large part is due to Ramos' influence.
Higuita and Ceren are the timekeepers for the Lions. All possession runs through them in the middle of the park.
Everything else is a question for OCSC right now. The wingers have been in flux due to injury, most notably the loss of Kevin Molino for the season. He was hugely influential (actually ahead of Kaka in key passes per 90 minutes) and passed the eye test, even if his numbers weren't big.
Molino's loss combined with injury issues for Carlos Rivas led the Lions to push Brek Shea from left back to left wing. Shea, however, picked up a red card last week against San Jose and will be unavailable this weekend. That leads to questions.
Rivas is getting back to health, and seems the most natural fit to slide in, but he's missed a lot of time. Lewis Neal played a game in that spot early in the season, but is more of a shuttler than a dynamic attacker and seems like the lesser of multiple options.
One option would be to bring physical forward Pedro Ribeiro into the lineup in a central role and push Kaka out left, where he often drifts in his free-roaming responsibilities anyway. Ribeiro has been hurt but is back working with the team and had some bright moments early. The question is how ready he is right now. That formation would look like a 4-4-2 that likely plays more like a 4-2-2-2.
If Ribeiro is not ready, the also previously-hurt Martin Paterson could play at striker. It seems unlikely that rookie striker Cyle Larin would be taken out of the starting 11, given his recent form, but Paterson could play next to him. Larin has begun to find some confidence and settle in and is athletic with a finishing touch. As expected, though, consistency is still a work in progress.
Another option would look a lot like what Orlando City used against Crew SC last time — a 4-3-3. That would involve playing Kaka at left wing and pushing Avila even higher in a right wing role. The hosts could then go with a defensive-heavy midfield of Higuita, Ceren and Amobi Okugo, who has seen his playing time dwindle over the last month, down to a three-minute cameo as a sub last week. Serie A's Fiorentina has expressed interest in Okugo, so it will be interesting to see if he's beginning to be phased out of OCSC's future plans.
The Lions have not typically gone with that 4-3-3, but considering this week's void on the left in their preferred 4-2-3-1 and the fact they ran the former against the Black & Gold last time, it could be head coach Adrian Heath's choice. It certainly would give them some heft in the middle to try to win back possession from a Columbus side that will try to boss the game.
THE ORLANDO DEFENSE
That was a lot of talk about the attack, so here's a quick look at the defense, which would seem like the club's weak point but has been good enough to get by as of late.
It's a unit that is third in MLS allowing just 10.7 shots per game and is fourth in expected goals against — Orlando's expected goal numbers actually see them allowing the exact same number of goals as they score, which I guess is, ultimately, why they've found themselves in the middle of the MLS pack.
That xGA number is 0.97, which is fourth in the league. Not bad.
OCSC is seventh in MLS in both danger zone ratio and total shots ratio, which basically says the back line is doing enough to give the attack a chance to do its thing. A possession-based game helps those numbers as well.
The loss of Aurelien Collin to injury certainly removed a vocal leader from the back four as well as a set-piece threat. Without him, Seb Hines and Sean St. Ledger have done the job, but don't scream "team strength."
Luke Boden has been the choice with Shea moving up the left side and Ramos has been the sparkplug on the right. Boden will get involved going forward, but is the steadier defensive presence of the two. Ramos can be caught out and has occasionally wilted under pressure on the defensive side.
The biggest boost is the introduction to Tally Hall, who had been recovering from injury until two weeks ago. Looking at the the G - xGA numbers, previous starter Donovan Ricketts was one of the worst in the league and even to the eye it was clear he is not playing at the level he did for many years. Hall would appear to be a pretty big step up from Ricketts and is providing stability in the back.
WHAT ARE CREW SC TO DO?
There is uncertainty about what Orlando City SC will bring to the table this weekend. Between personnel questions and inconsistent performance, who are the Lions? I'm still a little unsure. In most statistical categories, OCSC is smack dab middle of the pack. Despite some interesting names and personalities, they're currently wading in the muck and mire of MLS mediocrity.
Part of that has to do with offensive efficiency and questions in the attacking third. A majority of Orlando's possession — 49 percent, the highest in MLS — is in the middle of the field. They're middle of the pack in percentage of possession in the attacking third, and despite their high rate of possession and passing success, the Lions 11 shots per game is in the bottom third of the league. Of those 11 shots, they put only 30 percent on target, which is below average.
That screams of a team that's looking for ways to unlock defenses, which surprises a little with a talent like Kaka on the field. Of course, defenses also focus on preventing him from working his magic as much as possible, and OCSC is still looking for someone else to pick up that slack.
Ramos is good at getting into the attack, but he's still young and trying to come up with the polish on both ends of the field.
And despite the balance in building the attack, the final moments are surprisingly one-dimensional — 71 percent of Orlando City's shots come from the middle of the field (second in MLS) and 47 percent come from outside the box (sixth in MLS). That's not horizontally stretching defenses.
In a battle between two teams who enjoy possession, winning it will be important to ease pressure a little bit, as both defenses have made the occasional gaffe. It's critical for the Black & Gold because it forces Kaka to do some defensive work (not what he's being paid for) and it keeps Ramos from flying up the right. Plus, the less possession the Orlando City attack sees, the more efficient it must be with its chances, and the ability to do that is a question.
Mohammed Saied will be back for Crew SC, and at the perfect time, because he'll need to keep a watchful eye on Kaka. I'm of the opinion Saeid's form had dipped and that a week off may have done him some good.
It will also be interesting to see if Chris Klute gets the run out at right back again after a quality showing, as he would offer more defense and physicality on that side of the field where Kaka roams.
Also critical will be putting some pressure on Orlando's back four. OCSC doesn't want to have the ball at the feet of its defenders (at least not its center backs). Its 25 percent possession in its own third is the lowest in the league. In the team's last meeting, it was two defensive lapses that resulted in two of Columbus' three goals. If Crew SC can press a little bit, it can force the opposition into a game it's not comfortable in, and lead to goals for the Black & Gold.
That kind of goal will also be important because Ethan Finlay's status is up in the air, and whether he's limited or just doesn't play, it could certainly affect Columbus' build up. Getting goals high up the field could help circumvent those linking issues. Goals in transition could also open things up, as Orlando can be vulnerable to counter attacks.
Neither of those things are regular parts of the Black & Gold's arsenal, but it could be time for Crew SC to start diversifying if it wants to remain in the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.