D.C. United closes out the regular season against an Orlando City SC side that is using their final games to look for a way to be better next year. United beat the Lions 4-1 a month ago and virtually closed the door on Orlando’s playoff hopes (while starting a four-game winning streak of their own). However, the OCSC we saw that day on East Capitol Street is not the one we’ll see at Camping World Stadium tomorrow.
Jason Kreis was already flirting with a 4132 at that point, but fielded a 4231 at RFK. He went back and forth in the games that followed as Orlando lurched their way towards the offseason, but last week he might have found something more effective. In Philadelphia, Orlando deployed an empty bucket 442, and effectively managed a 2-0 road win over a team that needed a result to clinch a playoff spot. Despite some issues - possession-happy OCSC ended the match with 43.4% of the ball and completed an ugly 65% of their passes - they managed to get the win without relying on a big game from Joe Bendik in goal, and their defense didn’t need to put in a slew of goal-saving tackles.
So it stands to reason that we’ll see that same lineup deployed again Sunday afternoon. Orlando could go back to the 4231, which makes room for Kevin Molino, or they could use the 4132 again (another look that gets the Trinidadian and his 10 goal/7 assist production on the field), but the fact is that Orlando looked competent for the first time in over a month in the empty bucket. Kreis will probably give it another go and see if it was just a flash in the pan, or a real possibility for 2017.
Bendik has been adequate in goal all season, though Orlando may be looking to upgrade there this winter. The real talking points are ahead of him, where the back four might not be what Kreis views as his best group. On the right, Rafael Ramos made his first appearance in five months last week, returning from a troublesome hamstring issue. The young Portuguese defender is probably one Kreis needs to take more of a look at than veteran Kevin Alston, who is very much a known quantity. Ramos gets forward more often, which is a requirement with this narrow midfield.
On the left side, former Maryland Terrapin Mikey Ambrose - who left school early to sign in the USL a couple years ago before working his way into MLS just a couple months ago - is in a similar boat. He’s the less experienced option, and he’s quite a bit faster than Luke Boden, his competition for the gig. Boden’s advantage is his positional awareness, but his ceiling is also apparent. If Kreis is thinking about 2017, he’ll probably go with Ambrose here, but if the game were a must-win, it would be a tougher choice.
Spanish center back David Mateos went down with an MCL sprain a couple weeks ago, so Kreis has had to figure out who would partner Jose Aja. Last week, he gave the nod to Seb Hines, but 19 year old US youth international Tommy Redding has a ton of potential. Since Kreis seems to prefer Mateos and Aja anyway, there’s a chance that Redding gets a run out just to get one more professional game in before the offseason starts. However, if Hines starts, it will give Orlando two very dangerous players on set pieces. Last month, Aja managed five total shots at RFK, and four of them came on headers he won inside the box on free kicks and corners.
Shielding them will be a pair of defensive midfielders. Assuming he doesn’t double down on his “I don’t want to be on the field against United” act at RFK by just refusing to show up at the stadium, Antonio Nocerino will get one of the starting roles. Despite all the mockery he’s received from fans in the DMV, he has suited the way Kreis wants to play. Adrian Heath never seemed sure what to do with the Italian, but Kreis has used him as a regista and - aside from pointless red card meltdowns - he’s been much better off.
His partner is the closest thing to a coin toss here. Cristian Higuita got the start last weekend, but Kreis has given plenty of minutes to Servando Carrasco since arriving (not to mention the fact that both players remained while El Salvador national team regular Darwin Ceren was traded to San Jose). Both players provide a combative option, with Higuita’s past showing more of a preference for connecting short passes while Carrasco looks to open up the field. However, since Kreis arrived, Carrasco has actually been the more accurate passer. If there are major differences, it’s that Higuita is better at keeping the ball in tight spaces, and is more likely to commit a foul.
In this empty bucket, Kaka and Matias Perez Garcia both are the “wide” midfielders, but they play higher up the field and tuck inside on a regular basis. Kaka still sometimes gets wide enough to attack the side of the 18 yard box on the dribble, while Perez Garcia usually ends up very narrow looking to occupy the normal playmaking positions that a traditional #10 is used to.
This could pose an interesting problem for United, as the 4141 will leave defensive midfielder Rob Vincent possibly susceptible to being overloaded. If Kaka is playing just left of center, and Perez Garcia is just right of center, Vincent is going to need some help to avoid having too much to do to screen the center backs. We may see Jared Jeffrey dropping deep often enough that the 4141 becomes a 4231 at times.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is that United’s fullbacks have plenty of room to get forward. If the Black-and-Red are able to force Kaka and Perez Garcia to spend lots of time defending as true wide midfielders, they should be able to a) win those battles (neither is very good on that side of the ball) and b) make it easier on themselves when Orlando has the ball.
The whole reason for this formation shift is to get the speed of Carlos Rivas on the field. No matter the formation, Kreis has preferred a narrow midfield, but players comfortable in those spots are usually not that fast. Cyle Larin has plenty of speed, but he’s also Orlando’s main reference up front. If he has to be available as a back to goal option, it’s hard for him to also find time to stretch the field by running in behind, or by peeling out wide (something he tried repeatedly at RFK, to little success).
So Rivas is in, and the young Colombian winger/forward is probably auditioning to stick around for another season. He’s struggled with his technique and decision-making in critical moments, but Rivas scored last week thanks to a simple mistake on a bouncing ball at midfield. He’s got the kind of speed that makes it easy to play, and that can make a small mistake into a big one.
Off the bench, Molino is the most likely first sub. If Orlando is up, he’ll replace Rivas as they move into a (still very narrow) 4231. Julio Baptista scored off the bench last week, and he could come in up front as well. Last week, Kreis made an unconventional move in bringing Carrasco in to play right midfield in an attempt to protect a late one-goal lead, but he could also come in for one of the holding mids as well. Brek Shea has been dealing with a foot injury and missed out last week, but if he makes the bench it stands to reason that Kreis intends to use him as a change of pace on one flank or the other.