It’s crunch time in the 2021 Major League Soccer season with September arriving. The Columbus Crew will be in Florida this weekend for a big match against Orlando City SC, the second-place side in the Eastern Conference. These two teams haven’t played since Nov. 4 of last year, a match that Orlando won 2-1 with 10 men after Nani was sent off.
In the 10 months since that game, the Black & Gold have won an MLS Cup, opened a new stadium, changed its name and logo twice and gone through ups and downs on the field in the 2021 season. The Lions in that span were upset in the 2020 playoffs by the New England Revolution, signed a former AC Milan star and have lost just four games this season.
We talked to SB Nation’s The Mane Land staff writer Ben Miller to catch up on what Orlando soccer has been like since that Lions win over Columbus almost a year ago.
Questions for The Mane Land
Massive Report: It’s been a very long time since the Crew played Orlando and the Lions are well ahead of Columbus in the table. What’s the season been like for OCSC to see themselves comfortably in the top three in the East?
The Mane Land: It’s been a good season but there’s been a pervading sense that it could be a lot better at this point. Yes, the Lions are second in the East, but they have had a boatload of draws against lesser opposition lately, and that’s fostered some frustration among fans. The team has battled injuries all season, and as a result it hasn’t hit the heights that it probably should have. Between injuries to Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, Sebas Mendez, Joao Moutinho and Ruan with the absences of Mendez and Pedro Gallese for international duty and Daryl Dike for his loan and USMNT call-ups, the Lions have yet to play a single game with a fully first choice XI. Nani and Pereyra have only played together for 42.5% of available minutes and when they have the team has 25 points from 13 matches, and is 7-2-4.
When one or neither play, the team has a meager 10 points and is 2-2-4. Christopher Adams wrote a great piece for us going into those numbers in greater detail but the summary is that Orlando just hasn’t been able to put its best players on the field at the same time. On the flip side though, Orlando has still managed to be top of the Eastern Conference without ever putting its best team on the field, so if everyone can get fit and firing at the right time there’s plenty of reason for optimism.
MR: Striker Chris Mueller hasn’t been as effective this season with just two goals and Daryl Dike has just returned back into the Lions’ lineup. Is the confidence level high that both strikers can find their form again and make Orlando an even better contender?
TML: That’s a very good question. Mueller has definitely seen a drop off in form this season and it’s not totally clear why. Maybe he’s suffered from not having all the pieces around him that he did last year. Maybe he’s having difficulty focusing after it was confirmed he’s moving to Hibernian after the season is over. Maybe its just a bad run of form. It’s difficult to say. Dike has been badly in need of some rest. After playing the entire MLS season, the back end of the EFL Championship season and the Gold Cup he was suffering from a shoulder injury and some tendonitis. He got his first post-Gold Cup minutes last Friday and showed some flashes that he’s getting back into form.
I think both have shown enough in the past that they have the quality to make a difference for Orlando City, and I have a feeling that once everyone can get healthy at the same time things will start clicking for them a little better.
MR: Are there any injuries, suspensions or call-ups that will keep players unavailable for selection? What is your projected starting lineup and score prediction?
TML: The list of absences is finally starting to thin out. Alexandre Pato and Mauricio Pereyra are out while Sebas Mendez and Pedro Gallese are away for international duty. We think that Andres Perea and Uri Rosell are available again but I doubt they’ll start. My guess at a starting lineup is:
Mason Stajduhar; Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, Ruan; Junior Urso, Joey DeZart; Nani, Benji Michel, Chris Mueller; Daryl Dike.
For a score prediction I’ll say 2-1 Orlando.