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Crossing the Touchline: Orlando City SC at Columbus Crew SC

Who is Orlando City? We went straight to our source.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s afternoon match is one between two hot teams. Both Columbus Crew SC and Orlando City SC come into the game on two-match winning streaks.

The difference between the two sides is Orlando has only played two games and hasn’t taken the field in two weeks.

Crew SC meanwhile are 2-1-1 on the young season and took down a previously undefeated side, the Portland Timbers, last week at MAPFRE Stadium.

What we know about the opposition is City looked to improve defensively in the offseason and have conceded only one goal in the side’s two victories. Cyle Larin remains one of the more dangerous forwards in the league and already has three goals on the season.

Orlando will be without Kaka for the second consecutive match after he suffered an injury early in the opener.

Other than that, we’re looking to learn, which is why we turned to Michael Citro of The Mane Land for some inside perspective on City.

Questions for The Mane Land

Massive Report: One of the big stories of opening weekend in MLS was Orlando losing Kaka for a number of weeks. How did the team adjust and what should Crew SC fans expect to see without the Brazilian in the lineup on Saturday.

The Mane Land: Kaká being injured 10 minutes into the season was a big buzzkill for everyone in purple on March 5. The new stadium was rocking and suddenly the captain can’t get up. Jason Kreis slotted the recently acquired Giles Barnes into the lineup and Orlando City was able to quickly find a go-ahead goal and then hung on for dear life. The following week, with actual preparation time, Matias Perez Garcia took over the distribution duties for Kaká and Barnes got a chance to learn his teammates’ names and things went much more smoothly against Philadelphia.

MPG has an engine that doesn’t seem to quit, and while he lacks Kaká’s finishing skills and overall quality, he does bring a similar style to the game. Barnes has been surprisingly strong defensively and good in the attack. He’s still learning his teammates, as evidenced by a couple instances to play Carlos Rivas through on goal against the Union where he either didn’t anticipate the run, didn’t see it, or didn’t trust the pass and decided to keep. I don’t expect any changes among the attacking players from the last two matches: Rivas and Cyle Larin up top, with Barnes and MPG in the midfield.

There may be a change among the defensive midfielders, as Will Johnson could slot back into his preferred role in place of Servando Carrasco. Kevin Alston seems to have recovered from his hamstring issue, playing 60 minutes for Orlando City B at Tampa Bay Rowdies on Saturday. In addition, new right back Scott Sutter arrived from Switzerland nearly two weeks ago and is available for selection, although it’s unknown at the moment whether Kreis deems him integrated enough to make the trip.

MR: City has only played two games this season, but what are the (probably too) early takeaways you guys have gathered about this team so far.

TML: The first is that Rivas playing up top with Larin gives the team an entirely new dynamic. The Colombian DP is not only using his speed, but also getting into passing lanes, reading the game better, and sending accurate balls to his Canadian counterpart. He’s assisted on two of Orlando’s first three goals and has played a part in all three. Larin, in the meantime, has learned to make a wider variety of runs and is more active in the middle part of the pitch.

The other big takeaway is that the defense isn’t the shambles it was last year, although obviously there’s a small sample size. Although New York City FC peppered Joe Bendik’s goal in the opener, most of those shots were from distance or weak/off-target set piece attempts. Bendik made a small number of excellent saves and a few more comfortable ones, but the back line was cohesive and provided a good shield, despite the fact that Johnson was playing right back. Against Philadelphia, the team allowed only two shots on target. Jonathan Spector has been as good as advertised and Jose Aja is growing as a player. Donny Toia has been very solid at left back, too. Beyond that, Antonio Nocerino and Carrasco have been shielding the back line much better than we’ve seen the last two seasons from the defensive midfield.

MR: It could be argued that over the first two years of existence, the thing that kept OCSC out of the postseason was the poor play defensively. I know there have been some additions to the backline, but will they make a difference? Are fans optimistic this will get solved in season three?

TML: I don’t know that it could be argued, so much as proven conclusively. The Lions were third in goals scored last season and dead last in goals conceded. Fans are optimistic and they should be. The defense started to improve last season when Kreis took over. Sure, there were a few bad games (the loss to Columbus included) on the defensive side since Kreis arrived, but the principles were sounder even when the performances weren’t.

The fullback play was one of the biggest issues with the back line. Toia has made opponents work for every inch down Orlando’s left flank, and Will Johnson has done the same on the right side, despite not having a wealth of experience in the position. It is thought that Sutter will provide good coverage on that side when he’s ready. For the first time in the club’s MLS era, it feels like there is good depth and competition for spots at fullback on both sides (Johnson has been steady in the wake of two injuries at the position and that’s before Sutter’s arrival).

As I mentioned above, Spector has stepped right in and been outstanding in central defense. Beyond his physical ability (and he plays larger than his 6-foot frame), Spector reads the game well. He’s consistently correctly anticipating where the ball will end up and directing Aja and others to get where they need to be. He’s vocal and encouraging to his teammates, showing his leadership qualities. It’s only two games, but he’s been everything Orlando City fans were hoping for with his signing. If the strong play we’ve seen through two games is the norm instead of an outlier, the defensive problems will finally be solved.

To read Massive Report’s response to The Mane Land’s questions, check out their Intelligence Report.