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Orlando City projected starting 11 to face D.C. United

Kaka is out for the Lions, who may have to rotate after playing on Saturday

Like D.C. United, Orlando City comes into tonight's game after playing a road game on turf. Minnesota isn't quite as far from Orlando as Vancouver, but it should serve to level the playing field somewhat. Both sides will choose between rotation or possible exhaustion, and Kaka won't be available to step in to help the Lions.

Kaka’s status changes a lot for Orlando, and not just on the attacking end. The league site’s preview breaks it down as succinctly as possible:

In the 335 minutes Kaká has been on the pitch this season, Orlando are averaging 1.6 goals per 90, compared to 0.8 per 90 in 908 minutes without him. However, they are also conceding 2.4 goals per 90 when Kaká is on the field (0.9 when he is off).

Now, is Orlando’s offense this much worse just because Kaka is out? And is their defense that much better with him? No. It’s a factor, for sure, but the bigger thing here is that Orlando favors a more conservative approach without Kaka. It’s not just that he improves the attack but doesn’t really defend much. It’s that Orlando alters their mindset depending on whether or not he’s in.

Jason Kreis has sent his team out in both a flat 442 and a diamond 442 this season. On the weekend, he used the former, but I suspect that at home, the diamond will return:

Joe Bendik has won a lot of praise this year in goal. It’s easy to see why, as Bendik has produced some big, eye-catching saves throughout the year to keep Orlando in games. However, he does still maintain a bit of a tendency to let in the occasional soft goal, and those dramatic saves are at least partially rooted in some positioning and footwork issues. Still, the fact is it’s hard to get the ball past the guy more often than not.

We could see some rotation at right back, where Scott Sutter - acquired after the preseason had ended - has looked like a very good pick-up for the Lions. The English-born Swiss defender has provided a strong option overlapping on the right side, and appears to be the best defender among Orlando’s group of right backs to boot. That said, being an attacking fullback is tiring, and if Kreis wants fresh legs he can choose between Rafael Ramos (a more attacking presence who has been dealing with injuries all year) and veteran Kevin Alston.

At center back, Jonathan Spector is a near-certainty. The USMNT veteran may not be on Bruce Arena’s radar right now, but he has done pretty well as Orlando’s defensive organizer. Despite some suspicions about Spector’s ability to defend in the air - it was no accident that he was mostly a fullback in England - he’s looked solid, and his experience has been vital for an Orlando team that couldn’t defend to save their lives last season.

His partner is much less of a sure thing. Jose Aja was signed permanently after arriving on loan last year, but saw himself shuffled to the bench for a spell. Tommy Redding got a few starts before leaving for US under-20 duty, and Leo Pereira - a player initially signed for Orlando City B, then promoted up to the first team - got two starts before Aja returned to the lineup against Minnesota. Both Aja and Pereira are very physical players who might be vulnerable to being drawn out of position, and who will likely give away a few fouls as the game goes on.

Donny Toia was rested on the weekend, so the former Chivas USA/Montreal Impact defender can safely be expected to start at left back. Toia may not be the most gifted attacking fullback, but he’s got great lateral quickness and is quietly one of the better one-on-one defenders in MLS. If Lloyd Sam returns for United as expected, he’s going to have to be very crafty to get past Toia.

In the midfield, Will Johnson is coming off of a full 90 minutes, but his history with Kreis indicates that rotation is unlikely. Johnson will bring what he always brings: he’s combative to such an extent that he often loses his head, but knows this diamond system extremely well. Johnson is reliable on the ball, and every once in a while produces goals of the highest quality from long range.

United fans would surely like to see the Black-and-Red torment Antonio Nocerino, who under Kreis has gone from “laughingstock” to “mid-tier MLS defensive midfielder.” However, given Nocerino’s injury history and age, and his 74 minutes on turf Saturday, I suspect it’s more likely we’ll see Servando Carrasco instead. Carrasco is a bit more of a risk-taker in the passing game than Nocerino, but is easier to draw out of position when Orlando tries to defend.

Cristian Higuita only played a few minutes in Minnesota, and Kreis seems to like him much more in the diamond than in the flat 442, so look for him to start left of center tonight. Higuita, like a lot of Orlando players, has a temper and commits a lot of fouls. That said, he’s also a very smart player with the ball at his feet, and the combination of him, Johnson, and Carrasco will be difficult to play through. United might be trying to swing the ball wide a lot tonight.

The job at the top of the diamond could go to either Matias Perez Garcia or Giles Barnes. They’re very different players. MPG is on the slower side and wold prefer to string lots of passes together to break opponents down. Barnes, meanwhile, has decent speed and looks primarily to play a simple game based around the concept of the wall pass. Barnes wants to lay the ball off, take off at full speed, and receive it in space. United needs to prepare for both players, because it’s not entirely clear who will replace Kaka as Orlando’s playmaker.

Barnes could also play up top after Kreis kept Carlos Rivas and Cyle Larin up front for the entire match on Saturday. If Barnes plays as a forward, he’ll almost certainly replace Rivas, the erratic Colombian Designated Player. Rivas has great speed and the ability to make big plays, but he’s an extremely individualistic player. Rivas will most likely call his own number a few times tonight, and tends to be the first player to pull the trigger from long distance.

Larin is in a much-discussed scoring slump (one goal in seven games, and that goal came 344 minutes of game time ago), but it’s important to note that he started the season with six goals in six games. This is still one of the most dangerous goalscorers in MLS, and he’s the kind of player that can give United fits. Larin is obviously a big, strong player, but what often goes unmentioned is that he is also one of MLS’s fastest players. He’s an athletic freak who happens to also be a gifted player with the ball at his feet, and he doesn’t rely on just one time of service to do most of his scoring. If United makes any mistakes against Larin, they’ll probably end up paying a very high price.

Off the bench, Barnes will definitely sub in if he’s not given a start. He could end up in a lot of spots, including on either wing if Kreis opts to switch into the flat 442 as the game goes on. Luis Gil is another possibility, especially on either side of the diamond (Kreis, smartly, has figured out that Gil will never be a true playmaker, and uses his work rate and quick feet in roles where they make more sense). If normal starters like Rivas or Perez Garcia don’t get the nod due to rotation, you can count on them coming in for the final 25 or so minutes.