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Massive Scouting Report: Crew SC vs. Orlando City

Why is Orlando dangerous and how does Columbus stack up?

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC
Orlando City’s Carlos Rivas has looked as dangerous in 2017 as he has his entire MLS stint.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday brings an intriguing matchup to MAPFRE Stadium as Orlando City SC travels to take on Columbus Crew SC.

Two years ago this looked like a potential rivalry after some fiery matches, but both teams struggled last year and the flames died down a little.

But now Columbus is rolling off back-to-back victories and Orlando is unbeaten.

Of course, OCSC has played just two matches (one was snowed out) and last week were a stoppage-time post and a big stoppage-time save away from a draw with the Philadelphia Union.

But what can we expect when things kick off at 4 p.m. EST? Here’s a closer look...

The attack

Orlando City lines up in a 4-4-2, but the movement of second striker Carlos Rivas and the two wide midfielders, Matias Perez Garcia and Giles Barnes make it a little more dynamic than a flat system.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Orlando City SC
Cyle Larin has continued to pummel goals across MLS and has thrived in his early-season parternship with Carlos Rivas.
Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a small sample size so far, but Rivas is looking better than he has at any point in his MLS career, and his pace and ability to pop up in various places is what stretches the defense. He can drift wide and run at a defender from the wing, or he’ll drop into the midfield into the space behind big No. 9 Cyle Larin and use his speed through those spaces to cause problems. He hasn’t scored yet in 2017, but he has been a facilitator.

Barnes has spent good portions of his career playing as a striker and often pushes high up the field. MPG is closer to a No. 10 than a true wide player, so expect him to drift centrally to provide an underneath playmaker.

Changes afoot

Elsewhere there could be changes this week, and it’s unclear exactly how that will affect Columbus. Longtime MLS veteran Will Johnson has been a makeshift right back for Orlando in the season’s early going, but it sounds like OCSC is expected to actually have a right back on the field this week, allowing Johnson to shift into his natural position as a defensive midfielder. Anyone who has watched the league knows Johnson is a bulldog in the midfield and a tireless worker.

But while Johnson is a physical, dogged presence, I’ve also mostly thought of him as a guy who buzzes around the midfield, rather than a pure No. 6. So it will be interesting to see how he presumably pairs with Italian Antonio Nocerino, who is a box-to-box presence who likes to play vertical passes to spring transition.

Who will slide in at right back is still a question mark, but he’ll pop into an Orlando City defense that has been much better through two games this year, largely due to the center-back pairing of Jonathan Spector and Jose Aja. Danny Toia is at left back and, in my opinion, is somewhat of an underrated commodity in MLS.

How they play

We all know about Larin, but how does the ball end up at his feet? How should we expect the Lions to play on Saturday, especially without Kaka pulling the strings, as was intended?

This is a game in which Columbus should control possession and have a chance to dictate the tempo of the game. Although OCSC had more possession two weeks ago against Philadelphia, it’s had just 44.5 percent of the ball this season, and based on personnel, setup and home/away balance, it seems likely the Black & Gold will control that area come Saturday.

Expect Orlando to play relatively direct. It hasn’t been a high-percentage passing team (71 percent passing on the season) and doesn’t get bogged down in midfield — Orlando wants to get the ball out of its end and into the attacking third as quickly as possible.

It’s unclear exactly how Johnson will change where Orlando wins the ball or how it moves the ball once it does, but Orlando City will likely continue to try to overload the left side, where it gets Toia pushing up to midfield to connect with Nocerino pulling left, Barnes and a floating Rivas. MPG even occasionally pops up on the left, and when Larin drops deep it’s often toward the left side to get connected in that overload.

OCSC actually leads the league in left-sided attacking buildup, which accounts for 49 percent of its attack.

This make’s Harrison Afful’s presence as a defender critical. A week after he tucked inside and did a nice job defensively disrupting things, he’ll have to do the same thing this week while maintaining a wider role again.

OCSC leads the league with 58 percent of its shots coming from outside the box, and it’s fourth in MLS in terms of percentage of shots inside the 6-yard box. Meanwhile, it’s dead last from inside the 18-yard box. In other words, they’re not going to be messing around much in and around the penalty area — they either bomb it on goal or are on the doorstep.

A look at the team’s last performance clearly indicates its shape and tactical approach.

OCSC vs. PHI

The fast attack

I often implore Crew SC to get more explosive in the attack. Orlando has shown why that is so effective.

The two teams play very different styles, but what makes OCSC dangerous is that it finds ways to draw the opposing defense out and then attack explosively.

There’s also lots of pace that allows that to happen. Rivas, Barnes and MPG are all comfortable with the ball at their feet, with the first two more than willing to take on defenders 1-v-1 and give teammates space to get into in — namely Larin, who has scored all three of Orlando’s goals this year.

Often you’ll see the team try to spring Barnes or Rivas down the left side with a long ball, letting their feet do the work. You see that in their first goal against Philadelphia:

The game winner in that match wasn’t as kick-and-rush, but you still see how quickly Orlando can transition, going from ball at the back to ball in the goal in a split second:

That particular goal is made by Nocerino’s splitting pass into the space between the midfield and the back line. It also displays the danger presented by the Larin-Rivas pairing. Rivas’ movement has him drop perfectly into that space to pull the back line — which is harried in transition — into midfield. Meanwhile, Larin perfectly sits on the shoulder of Oguchi Onyewu, knows exactly when the ball will come and turns behind the defense just as MPG plays a through ball for him to get 1-v-1 with the keeper.

It’s incredibly compelling buildup and should definitely cause concern for Crew SC fans.

Get wide

How can Columbus have success on Saturday? My first inclination is that it will need to play touchline to touchline and stretch the field wide.

Orlando’s wide midfielders have shown a willingness to help defensively, but the best way to test the defense will be to stretch the gaps between them where Federico Higuain, Justin Meram and Ola Kamara can work.

Not to mention that right back will still be a question mark for OCSC — either a guy (Johnson) who’s not truly a fullback or someone who hasn’t played a competitive match in some time — so it would seem wise to challenge that spot on the field.

And if Johnson is in the midifield, it will help poke and prod at that defensive-midfield relationship — one that hasn’t worked together yet — to challenge them positionally to fill the gaps.

Most of Philadelphia’s chances to weeks ago began with the ball wide.

Pull out the press

Columbus has occasionally pressed, and I think it’s something that would be useful against Orlando, though I don’t know if Gregg Berhalter will use it or not.

A situational press would have a number of effects: It would force a team that doesn’t pass exceptionally well to move the ball quickly, it would disrupt OCSC’s desire to pick out downfield passes and move quickly out of its own end and would have the potential to catch an overloaded Orlando side and leave space in the midfield to drive into.

Be aware

That’s the key for Crew SC defensively.

Yes, Rivas is pacey and is getting into dangerous areas, but the back line can nullify that somewhat by not losing track of him as he floats. The Black & Gold will need to fill those areas and not give him time to run, stretch holes in the defense and either burst through or find a teammate.

Awareness will also matter because OCSC has been good at sending secondary runners. Whether that’s a far-post run in attack or movement off hold-up play from Larin or Rivas (and Nocerino will make late runs), Columbus can’t lose sight of where the Lions dangermen are.

This will put the spotlight on center back, where it’s quite likely Jonathan Mensah won’t be healthy enough to go. Alex Crognale seems to be the fan favorite to step into that role, but it will be a tall task for a young defender making just his second professional start. Wil Trapp will have to be sound in helping that back line.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Houston Dynamo
Nicolai Naess will have his hands full in the center of defense against Orlando’s attacking group.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Other links

Check out our very own Tactical Talk on Orlando City SC without Kaka.

Listen to Kris Landis and Nathaniel Marhefka offer their take on Saturday’s matchup on the Massive Report Matchday Podcast.

And if you missed it, Crew SC traded for young winger Kekutah Manneh on Thursday. You can also read more about Manneh here.