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Opposition 11: Who will start for Orlando City against D.C. United?

Believe it or not, Antonio Nocerino could be a major factor tomorrow

Somehow, it’s late September and D.C. United has yet to meet Orlando City SC, a fellow Eastern Conference foe. The vagaries of MLS scheduling are beyond the scope of this column, though, so let’s not dwell on how odd that is. Instead, let’s talk about who the Lions are these days, just a touch over two months after firing Adrian Heath and replacing him with Jason Kreis.

Kreis has sent his team out in a 4231, which is by and large Heath’s preferred alignment (though Heath certainly experimented more regularly than Kreis has in the ten games he’s coached). The difference is in execution - Heath wanted his team to stretch teams horizontally more than Kreis - and in how players are used. Under Heath, for example, Darwin Ceren was irreplaceable, a starter whose name was written in permanent marker on all lineup sheets. Kreis traded him for Matias Perez Garcia barely two weeks into his tenure.

We’ll get into some of the new faces and new roles as we go along, but first let’s look at how Orlando will line up:

In goal, Joe Bendik has started every game this season after arriving in central Florida to find himself in a fight with Earl Edwards Jr. for the top spot on the depth chart. Part of soccer culture in Orlando is based around goalkeeper veneration: Bendik has twelve Save of the Week wins, including eight of the last eleven week, and he’s somehow not even as sure of a win as Ashlyn Harris is for the Orlando Pride in the NWSL.

Despite OCSC fan love, though, Bendik is among MLS’s lesser starters. He’s prone to gaffes, and while he’s perfectly capable of making huge saves, he regularly fails to come up with that (possibly mythical) "one big save" that coaches always mention when their ‘keeper’s only save of the game happens to be a difficult one.

Under Kreis, Orlando has given up 2.00 goals per game (note: GAA is a team stat, please do not attach this to Bendik alone). Sure, giving up four goals in consecutive games has made that look worse, but let’s be real: Kreis had them giving up 1.50 a game before that, a rate that leads to conceding 51 times in a full season. That’s actually an improvement of Heath’s 2016 (1.74), which is less an indictment of the two coaches and more the personnel.

Silver Spring native Kevin Alston is at right back, though his spot may be contested by young Brazilian Rafael Ramos (who missed quite a big chunk of the season with a hamstring strain). This is the one spot in the back where Orlando has adequate speed, but it’s certainly not a region of the field United should fear attacking.

So, about that speed. Orlando is slow everywhere else in the back, which is only exacerbated by their preference for a high line. David Mateos appears locked in as one of the starters - he missed out last week due to his second yellow card accumulation suspension, a common problem for the Lions as a squad - but his partner is up for debate. Jose Aja will start if cleared to play, but he missed last week’s game due to a concussion. 19 year old Tommy Redding may have a slight edge on Seb Hines if Aja can’t go, but all three are at least in the running to make a start. It’s worth noting that Hines, despite his flaws at the back, is an elite set piece threat in attacking situations.

On the left side, Kreis made it abundantly clear that he sees Brek Shea as a midfielder, so left back has mostly been Luke Boden’s job. However, Boden is quite slow for a fullback, and despite some decent positional chops he can be exposed by direct wing play. Lloyd Sam happens to be quite good at just that sort of thing, so it’s possible that we’ll see former Maryland Terrapin Mikey Ambrose (who replaced Boden at halftime last week) instead. Ambrose’s issue is that the mental side of his game is pretty raw at the MLS level. He was only signed from Orlando City B after Kreis arrived, having previously spent his pro career in the USL.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about a guy United fans have probably been wanting to yell at all year long. Antonio Nocerino chose to take Orlando’s offer after the Lions violated league rules to interfere with United’s attempt to land the Italian international, but for most of the season that appears to have been a blessing in disguise. Nocerino was flat-out terrible under Heath, who never seemed sure what to do with him. Nocerino moved between playing as a #8, as a left winger, and as a guy sitting on the bench.

However, perhaps the single most significant thing Kreis has done since coming aboard is finding a role Nocerino fits into. He was a flop as a linking midfielder and absolutely horrid on the wing, but Kreis has deployed the former AC Milan man as a regista. It has certainly helped Orlando that Nocerino has re-applied himself under Kreis, but it’s also undeniable that he’s a far better fit as the base of Orlando’s attempts at possession rather than being asked to buzz around midfield in a league full of faster players.

It’s worth noting how things have gone for Orlando lately without Nocerino and his unusual socks (seriously, he’s been wearing socks with extra stripes all year long). He appeared to pull his hamstring in an attempt to block a cross - which, it turns out, was the assist on a goal - in LA in the 38th minute. He came off two minutes later, and in the three halves and change since then Orlando has conceded six goals. There have been problems all over the field, but the giant gap between midfield and defense that shows up without Nocerino is high on the list.

It’s not entirely clear that he’ll be fit for tomorrow’s game. If Nocerino is not able to start, the natural replacement is apparently fit-again Cristian Higuita (another player that Heath loved who hasn’t played much under Kreis). However, if Higuita is also unable to start due to his time out injured, the job will fall to Servando Carrasco, who has always appeared more comfortable playing an anchor role in a 4141 or 433 than he is with the less clear role that comes with a defensive midfield partner.

Speaking of partners, Carrasco will probablystart as the other holding mid if Nocerino or Higuita gets the nod. However, after the last two games, Kreis could be forgiven for trying to pair Nocerino and Higuita. Tony Rocha - like Ambrose, a new signing from OCB - could also step in, though Rocha’s lack of defensive awareness is not really what the Lions need right now.

So if there are problems in the engine room, the attacking midfield trio of Kaka, Kevin Molino, and Matias Perez Garcia has at least been a strong suit. It’s a flexible group that Kreis deploys based on match-ups. Kaka can play in the middle or on the left, while both Molino - a criminally underrated player outside of Florida - and Perez Garcia have played all three roles. With Sean Franklin still listed as out, it would be a major surprise if Kaka and Molino take turns playing on the left side in an effort to exploit United’s troublesome right back position. It’s also worth noting that the wide men will not be very wide, and that this group will swap roles fluidly throughout the game.

Up top, Cyle Larin was just named the top player in the league under the age of 24. That’s not really a surprise. At just 21, Larin already looks like he could be the best Canadian player ever, and he’s already got 31 goals in just 54 pro appearances. The changes made under Kreis have not hurt his goal return (5 goals in 9 appearances), but he is being used differently these days. Heath treated Larin as a classic center forward, whereas Kreis often asks Larin to pull wide when Orlando is building up in their own half.

Regardless, Larin is a nightmare to defend. He has high-end speed, yet is also built for the physical battles that are a fact of life for strikers in MLS. He’s smart off the ball, too, and isn’t the kind of striker who needs a few chances to find his range. Remember this one from last year? That’s typical Larin, who can find the corner with power even when shooting in crowds.

Off the bench, Shea is a virtual guarantee to come in, most likely for Perez Garcia. Shea is who Orlando uses as a change-up these days, with his direct style and his athleticism a major contrast with the more technical, intricate play of MPG, Kaka, and Molino. He’s been effective in that role, too, and without Franklin it seems certain that Shea will come in and line up on the left wing regardless of the scoreline.

Rocha has been subbing in frequently under Kreis, so don’t be surprised to see him slot in somewhere in central midfield. If Orlando is ahead, it’ll be in the middle of that attacking trio, but otherwise he’ll come into the #8 role. One sub that won’t be around to help is Carlos Rivas, who went over the yellow card limit almost immediately after coming in last week. Without his speed to call on, don’t be surprised if rookie Hadji Barry is used in a similar manner if Orlando wants to push for a goal (a move that will likely mean a change to a diamond 442). Aging Brazilian Julio Baptista is also an option, though "The Beast" has just one appearance in the last five games.