Don't look now, but D.C. United is facing another Eastern Conference side in improving form tonight. Orlando City SC is unbeaten in four games - scoring ten goals in the process - and suddenly sit in 4th place in the East. That means they've jumped ahead of the Red Bulls and Crew during this burst of good form.
That's not to say that there are no current issues, however. Their 2-2 draw with Columbus saw the Crew play 75 minutes down a man, and Orlando got the draw only due to an 89th minute golazo from Pedro Ribeiro. Their comeback win in Chicago will no doubt boost their spirits, but realistically good teams in MLS don't crumble in such spectacular fashion as the Fire did last Saturday. Of the aforementioned 10 goals, 4 came in 90 minutes against LA at the start of the streak. Since then, the aggregate score of OCSC games is 6-5. Their attack is looking sharp, but this is still not a sturdy defensive team despite Tally Hall's return from his ACL rehab.
The Lions will also be dealing with some missing starters thanks to the start of World Cup qualifying. For most countries, CONCACAF isn't just a perfunctory semifinal round followed by the Hexagonal. Holding midfielder Darwin Ceren has quietly been quite good recently, but he'll be away with El Salvador. Cyle Larin is an even bigger loss, as he's with Canada after scoring 5 goals in the first 688 minutes of his professional career. Brek Shea is back in Florida after USMNT duty, but there's always a chance with returning internationals that they're tired from the games and travel (not to mention the possibility of picking up a knock on the field).
That will leave Adrian Heath with a couple decisions to make (that is, if he can stop making eyes at players who aren't on his team). Their preferred 4231 should be retained despite the absences:
Hall will continue in goal, where he's been the upgrade over Donovan Ricketts that any experienced MLS observer would have expected. Rafael Ramos will continue at right back, a role he plays with a very attacking mindset. United has found space behind him in every meeting between the clubs, though, so don't be surprised if the DC attack sees Fabian Espindola drifting left.
Aurelien Collin returned from the hamstring strain he picked up at RFK for last week's game against Chicago and is sure to start. Seb Hines had been first choice nearly all season, but against the Fire Heath went with former United trialist Sean St. Ledger alongside Collin. This position appears to be up for grabs at the moment, as both players are fairly similar and come from similar playing backgrounds in the UK.
Luke Boden should remain at left back, but between Shea and the return to fitness of Lewis Neal - sorry, LEWIS NEAL! - there's a chance that Shea ends up in this spot while Neal plays in the midfield. Most likely, though, Boden retains his place. He doesn't quite attack as zealously as Ramos does, but Heath likes both fullbacks to overlap regularly.
Cristian Higuita will start in one of the defensive midfield spots, but who he partners will determine what sort of responsibilities that job will come with. With Ceren away, Heath will have to choose between Amobi Okugo - who has been benched over the last few games - or his own son Harrison (who made his MLS debut at RFK). If it's Okugo - and it probably will be - then Higuita will have to push a bit higher while Okugo drops deep to collect the ball from the defense in possession.
If Heath starts, Higuita will probably be the true #6. That's where he's more comfortable, but Okugo is very much a better player than the 19 year old Heath. On the other hand, Okugo is in some sort of funk, and if Heath was willing to keep it in the family on the road, he'll have no reservations about going with the kid again here. Neal's an option here too, of course, but Heath seems to see him as a left midfielder first and foremost.
Eric Avila will stay at right midfield once again, while Kaka - now no longer tasked with creating and finishing everything himself - will feature at attacking midfield. Shea should be on the left, but Neal - or even Carlos Rivas, though the young DP appears to only be a super-sub at this point - could come in if Shea's playing in the back.
Heath's 4231 is a bit unusual for MLS, as both wide midfielders don't really stay too far wide. In the past, that actually clogged things up for Kaka, but OCSC has found more of a balance in recent weeks. Avila's still going to move inside and look to combine, but he's not going to end up spending all his time within 5 yards of Kaka. Shea, meanwhile, is more dynamic and will make plenty of hard-charging runs along the touchline as well as drifting inside for combinations.
Up front, Larin's absence is one the Lions have prepared for. Pedro Ribeiro - another player who injured his hamstring against United - returned to the lineup only a couple of games ago, but did so in style. His long-range blast gave them a draw against Columbus, and Heath rewarded the 6'4" Brazilian with a start over Larin at Toyota Park. Ribeiro prefers to play with his back to goal and is less of a battering ram than he looks like, but that hasn't stopped him from using his frame to force two own goals this season. His unusual combination of height and soft feet will make this a slightly different game than the norm for United's center backs.
Off the bench, it seems safe to expect Rivas to come on either as a winger or as a striker. The Colombian's speed and direct running make him a menacing player late in games, particularly in humid, energy-sapping conditions. It also seems somewhat likely that we'll see Neal on the left, which could be a) to give Shea a break after his trip across the Atlantic or b) to push Shea to left back in an effort to chase the game. Finally, Bryan Rochez should be back from the under-20 World Cup - he was representing Honduras - and could replace either Ribeiro or be used in a late formation change if United is ahead.