Most MLS expansion teams have gone in one of three directions. You have your teams made of adequate but flawed MLS retreads who play a very run-of-the-mill game, your teams that arrive with arrogance and get obliterated (this is basically just Chivas USA), and your teams that start very young with the knowledge that they'll take their lumps in the first year but benefit in the seasons that follow.
On one hand, Orlando is in that last category. At full strength, they would likely start three players who can't buy beer legally. On multiple occasions, the center back on their bench is a teenager. They carry a rookie backup goalkeeper, and a few more regulars still haven't hit the halfway point of a typical soccer player's career. While they do have some MLS reclamation projects on their team, this is mostly a group of players who are new or new-ish to MLS.
And yet Adrian Heath has insisted on his team playing what most would agree is good soccer: They keep the ball. They don't like to play much in the air. There's an emphasis on picking players who can use the ball as much or moreso than there is on athletic freaks who may or may not be able to accurately pass over 10 yards. The fullbacks are told to push into the attack, even if it means taking a defensive risk. Long balls are only used when absolutely necessary.
There's also this guy you may have heard of named Kaka. 89 caps for Brazil, World Cup winner, AC Milan, Real Madrid, etc. He also made the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup Best XI, which I probably didn't have to mention because everyone knows that. Funny thing, though: Orlando plays the way they do and succeeds not just because Kaka is as good a player as there is in MLS; they're good because the team isn't built to be Kaka + 10 dudes. The Lions are built around their star, to be sure, but they're not just passing him the ball and getting out of the way.
For D.C. United, this is going to be a tougher road game than previous trips to first-year MLS clubs have been. Orlando tends to hold a solid advantage in possession - particularly at home, where WhoScored.com has them averaging 57% - and they tend to connect on over 80% of their attempted passes regularly. As the visitor, that means a lot of chasing and a lot of defending.
Well, unless said visitor actually starts connecting their own passes. Orlando is an attack-minded team, but they have a tendency to look uncomfortable without the ball. If there's one point that I want to drill home for United today, it's this: A win or draw on the road is going to require keeping the ball for long periods. United doesn't necessarily have to connect 20+ consecutive passes in the Orlando half, but keeping the ball and making Orlando deal with life without possession is going to be critical. If they're allowed to get to their customary possession dominance at home, United should be worried. Orlando may have struggled to score at home thus far, but that's an aberration. If they own the ball, they're eventually going to create goals.
Tactically, there's only so much that United can change to ensure a more even share of the ball tonight. Staying narrow will be important. As I indicated earlier, Orlando isn't big on crossing the ball, so a narrow and organized opponent is going to be tricky for them. In situations where United can't simply win the ball outright, it will be better to concede a cross rather than get beat on the dribble, as that's how "narrow and organized" turns into chaotic scrambling. The fact that Orlando's midfield doesn't really provide width should set United up to congest central avenues of attack. Between that and the turf surface, I think United can make it difficult for the Lions to turn their possession into dangerous attacks. Still, this will be a test for Kofi Opare in what will be his first-ever DCU start.
Similarly, United can't go long very much in this game because of Aurelien Collin. He's going to win just about every header, and he's fast enough that Jairo Arrieta and Chris Pontius aren't likely to have an easy time if United goes over the top. This is a defense you beat with crafty movement. Arrieta should be able to find some opportunities to make some runs between the gaps (provided he stays onside after last week's six offside calls).
The difficult part, of course, is that it's hard to play through balls on turf. It's a faster surface, so the ball carries on for a few more yards than United will be used to. The idea here will be to break through via quick combinations to feet rather than trying to play someone through from 20-30 yards away. This gets back to staying compact: United won't have an easy time attacking this way if everyone is far apart. Staying connected is going to be key at both ends.
As I alluded to earlier today, United will throw Orlando off by forcing them to play out of the back through someone other than Amobi Okugo. Okugo normally drops deep enough that he's almost taking the ball off of his own defenders, but he'll have to go elsewhere if he's tracked by United's forwards. Defending from the front is not glamorous, but it will help throw OCSC out of their normal way of doing things.
Taylor Kemp is going to have to produce a big game defensively today. Orlando is a pretty right-sided team both in terms of where they create and where they end up shooting from. A big factor here is Kevin Molino, who functions as Orlando's biggest threat after Kaka. The Trinidad & Tobago national team starter may have spent the past few years in the USL, but he's a significant threat due to his quality with the ball and his runs without it. Orlando will surely be looking to attack the space between Kemp and Opare. In fact, they'd attack that channel regardless of who United sent out. The point here is for United to make it difficult when Molino comes inside, and then for Kemp to shut him down 1v1 if/when he starts playing like a more typical winger. If Kemp can win that battle while mixing in some overlapping runs, United is probably in a good place.
Those runs might actually be big, because United is more reliant on creating from central positions than any other team in MLS right now. With Orlando having speed at center back and also playing two defensive midfielders, Ben Olsen's side is going to have to either a) be so good that Orlando is helpless despite a clogged central area or b) create from wide spots. A cross from Kemp is where United scored in their preseason match - it was in January, but feels like it was a lifetime ago - and I think Orlando is weaker defending from the flanks. These attacks have to come at speed, though. Lumping a cross into the box during a slow-moving attack is essentially conceding possession to Collin or Seb Hines. United's attack struggles when things get methodical, but tonight it will be more costly than normal.
From set pieces, OCSC is a threat. Collin is as good as anyone inside the 18 yard box, while Hines, Okugo, and Shea are also good targets. Ribeiro might not be the bruiser he looks like at first glance, but United is going to have to use a taller player to mark him as well. With Kaka standing over dead balls, this is a significant problem. United needs to work very hard to defend without fouling and to only concede corners when there are no other options. If Orlando is going to make their size on set pieces count, they should have to work for it. Orlando is also a threat to score directly from free kicks. Mostly this is about Kaka, though after his goal for the USMNT earlier this week I expect to see Shea standing over the ball asking the Brazilian superstar for a chance to have a crack.
At the other end, there's a bit of disorganization from what I've seen. Donovan Ricketts has never convinced me when coming for crosses, and it seems like Orlando's size is not matched by their thought process or determination in this sort of situation. That's not to say that this is going to be easy; bad service is still going to be cleared with minimal fuss. What I'd be looking for from United is some trickery. Short corners will mitigate Orlando's advantage in terms of size, for example. Driven, accurate service is always good, but I'd like to see United get back to the cleverness in these situations that we saw in the first half of 2014.