It’s safe to say 2017 has not gone according to plan for Orlando City, which is something D.C. United is painfully familiar with. The Lions, like United, were expecting themselves to be in the thick of the playoff race. Orlando got off to a good start, winning six of their first seven games, but since then they’ve been the worst team in MLS. That’s not just my opinion, but the reality of their 2W-7D-11L record in the games that followed that outstanding start.
Since their rather fortuitous 2-0 win over United back on May 31st - you might remember an open-net miss, a missed PK shout, and the worst moment of Bill Hamid’s 2017 season all going against the Black-and-Red that night - Orlando has conceded 25 goals in 13 games. They’ve made some big moves during the summer, but Dom Dwyer , Yoshimar Yotun, and Dillon Powers address the attack a lot more than they do the defense.
Jason Kreis has largely tried to make a 442 diamond work this season, but it simply hasn’t taken. Last week, during a miserable 4-0 loss to the New England Revolution, Kreis abandoned it late in the first half. The resulting 4231 didn’t really stem the tide; the Revs had a goal chalked off by VAR before halftime, and even with the scoreline being influenced by Jose Aja getting his second yellow card in the 80th minute, 4-0 is a fair reflection of how much New England dominated proceedings.
The issue with the diamond appears to be simple structural breakdowns. Last week, Kaka stayed too high, which in turn leaves the shuttlers on the right and left a bit too far wide to adequately support the lone defensive midfielder. Given that Antonio Nocerino is already not that mobile, you can probably guess how things played out. The fact that neither Powers nor Giles Barnes are natural fits for the shuttler role only served to contribute to a midfield that allowed the Revs to take total control.
That diamond midfield is still likely to be what United sees from the start, though a move to 4231 or something of an empty bucket 442 is also a distinct possibility:
Joe Bendik has had a really strong season, making multiple big saves a game to keep the Lions afloat when their defense lets them down. There are still parts of his game (positioning and anticipation especially) that need improvement, but Bendik has sharp reflexes, does well coming off of his line to close down one-on-ones, and is as brave as they come. Beating him will be tough.
Right back Scott Sutter has quietly had a solid season, improving Orlando’s attack down the wing with his relentless overlapping runs. The Swiss veteran didn’t join OCSC until the preseason was over, but he seemed to adjust to MLS straight away. While he’s not an outstanding individual defender, he’s quick and tough without being overzealous. If United can attack the spaces he leaves (and the diamond pretty much obliges him to get forward so there’s some width to this attack), they can put Kreis in a position where he is forced into a formation change out of necessity.
Jonathan Spector made the trip up from Florida, but after several weeks away with a knee injury it seems like he might not be able to play a full 90 minutes. That means Leo Pereira - signed early in the season to an Orlando City B contract before getting promoted in short order - may be joined by youngster Tommy Redding instead. The US under-20 center back has a promising future, but he and Pereira don’t make for a natural pairing; essentially, all of Orlando’s center backs do better alongside the USMNT veteran Spector, who provides leadership and organizational ability that no one else on the Lions roster can even come close to replicating.
On the left, Donny Toia is a very talented one-on-one defender, and toes the line between being combative and simply fouling a lot pretty well. He’s not really that great going forward, but he’s fit enough to make the runs and at least provide a presence up the touchline on a regular basis. Still, he’s more likely to stay home than Sutter, and in the diamond that can be a problem. PC came in for him last week against the Revs while the score was still 1-0, and if Orlando wants to simply try to score their way out of their troubles, we could see the Brazilian replace Toia in the starting lineup. On the road, however, this seems to be a doubtful prospect.
Nocerino, who remains oh so popular with United fans, has been far better off under Kreis than he was playing a more physically demanding role under Adrian Heath. Kreis has figured out that a) Nocerino can’t cover much ground and b) he still has a Serie A soccer IQ, so if you let him hold an anchor role down he can turn his positional sense and judgment into an effective shield for the defense. Nocerino is still vulnerable if you can draw him out of the center, but he’s not the outright flop that he appeared to be when first signed.
Will Johnson’s suspension after being charged with battery in a domestic dispute robs Kreis of his most experienced option for one of the shuttler roles. However, transfer window signing Yoshimar Yotun seems comfortable there (he’s said to be able to play as many as five different positions). It seems safe to expect the Peru international to be in the starting lineup now that the international break is over, though whether he plays on the left (he’s a lefty) or the right (where he played against the Whitecaps a couple of weeks ago) remains to be seen.
That leaves Giles Barnes and Dillon Powers vying for one spot opposite Yotun. Barnes is a winger/forward by trade, but has started the last two games on the left side of the diamond. Powers, meanwhile, is a perfect fit as a #8 in a three-man central midfield, but keeps finding himself on teams that staunchly refuse to grasp that. Barnes will add more in terms of speed and overall attacking presence if he starts, while Powers has the better range of passing and could boost Orlando’s share of possession. The choice Kreis makes here will point to whether he wants a more open game (Barnes), or whether he’d like to use possession to slow things down (Powers).
Kaka has struggled to make a major impact in 2017, with injuries disrupting his season early and Orlando’s overall struggles becoming a factor of late. On the ball, he’s still an immensely talented player, but his age is clearly starting to show. At 35, Kaka simply isn’t as quick with his first step, and that lost burst makes all the difference in terms of him getting separation with his dribbling moves or finding small windows to pass through. If United suffocates him on the ball, they can really limit the Brazilian legend’s influence on the game. Give him a pocket of space, though, and they’ll be inviting trouble.
Intriguingly, it’s not entirely certain whether Kreis will pair Dwyer, whose transfer involved absolutely demolishing the record for allocation money spent on one move within MLS, with Cyle Larin. Larin is an outstanding talent, with rumors of the Lions putting an eight-figure valuation on him when it comes to European suitors. With Larin’s size and speed, and Dwyer’s endless hustle, it seems like a viable fit.
Instead, Kreis hasn’t gotten much out of them as a duo, and there’s a significant chance Carlos Rivas starts instead. Rivas is more likely to peel out wide, and his speed can be a major factor for Orlando (particularly if Kreis prefers to start Dwyer). However, Rivas has a pronounced tendency to choose to shoot every time he’s within 35 yards of goal. That’s not great, because Rivas is not at all precise as a finisher. The sight of Rivas wasting an attack by shooting off-balance and well over the bar has become all too common for the Lions, and he’s shown no signs of making an adjustment.
The non-starter from Powers or Barnes seems to be a probable option to sub in, as does the forward who doesn’t end up making the starting eleven. Other options include Cristian Higuita or Servando Carrasco in the midfield, while utility man Tony Rocha could play multiple positions.