It’s a pretty good moment for D.C. United to be facing Orlando City. The Lions have put together a very strong roster on paper this season, but like United, they’ve had a massive turnover after a disappointing 2017. That means players who have only been playing together for weeks rather than months or years, and with D.C. fielding a similarly unfamiliar lineup, it stands to reason that both teams will have similar issues in terms of players not quite knowing each other’s tendencies.
On top of that, Orlando is missing numerous players. United is without two or three starters, sure, but that’s nothing on the Lions. We’ve known for a while that Sacha Kljestan would be out due to a suspension from last year’s BMO Field tunnel fracas during his time with the Red Bulls. However, Jason Kreis has admitted that four other players — Dom Dwyer, Uri Rosell, Josue Colman, and Dillon Powers — will miss out due to injuries. On top of that, Lamine Sane (recently signed from Bundesliga side Werder Bremen) is apparently questionable in part because he was only signed 10 days ago.
Everyone mentioned above save for Powers is a projected starter, and without an established pecking order behind them, it’s a bit unclear who will step in. Orlando also made sure to release as little information about their preseason games as possible, so even media in Florida is not 100% sure what formation Kreis will prefer, much less who will start with so many top players out.
As such, we’re going with the pretty common guess that Orlando will play a 4231, but keep in mind that this could be a 442 diamond (Kreis played a lot of that last season) or something else. This one is tough to call.
Let’s start off with a few easy ones. Joe Bendik is the unquestioned #1 in Orlando, and he’ll start tomorrow. Bendik doesn’t always make the best choices, but his shot-stopping ability, bravery, and quickness coming off of his line are not in question. One thing to look out for: he’s not the cleanest distributing the ball, and United appears to have made a point of emphasis out of pressuring defensive players that might struggle in that department.
Scott Sutter is another sure thing at right back. The English-born Swiss defender goes under the radar a bit, but he’s one of the better players at his position in the league. He gets forward frequently, he’s smart enough to not get exposed, his 1v1 defending is strong, and overall he just doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses.
Jonathan Spector is a similar player at center back. Orlando’s new captain was one of the only Lions players who kept performing at a respectable level as their 2017 fell apart, and while he might not quite crack the Best 11 this year, he’ll be very good. If Spector has one weakness, it’s that his defending in the air can be a bit spotty.
If Kreis is not ready to throw Sane into the mix this early, Spector’s partner pretty much has to be Amro Tarek. Tarek’s story is interesting: he’s a US-born Egyptian international in his second stint in MLS, both of which have been loans. Of course, the first one in 2016 saw him released by Columbus in May after making just one appearance (which did not go well). Since then, he’s been released by Real Betis in Spain, signed a deal with Ismaily in Egypt, then had that contract torn up before he was formally registered as an Ismaily player, then signed with ENPPI, then signed with Smouha only to immediately have that deal dissolved so he could sign with Wadi Degla...who have loaned him to Orlando. All of this has happened in less than two years.
This is a long way of saying Tarek, for numerous reasons, appears to be pretty dubious depth. At 6’3”, he might help Spector in the air, but no matter who gets the start, this looks like a potential weak point that United can exploit.
On the left, Donny Toia and Libyan defender Mohamed El-Munir are battling for the starting job, with no clear favorite. Toia is a very sturdy, physical defender, but he offers very little going forward. El-Munir has a pretty interesting CV, having left the Libyan league to play in Serbia (twice) and Belarus before finding his way to MLS.
With Rosell unavailable, Kreis will probably turn to Cristian Higuita as his #6. The Colombian has shown some good qualities during his time with Orlando, but he’s also been inconsistent and is one of the least disciplined players in MLS. Higuita has picked up 27 yellow cards in just under 5,300 minutes played in MLS which is about 1 yellow per 196 minutes. United should try to wind him up, because Higuita is prone to losing his head and doing things that put his team in bad spots.
It gets complicated after that. Yoshimar Yotun is the best choice for the #8 role, but he’s also quite versatile. With all the absences, I feel like Kreis will use him further upfield and play the more defensive-minded Will Johnson alongside Higuita. However, if Orlando wants to choose an aggressive lineup, they could keep Yotun in the engine room and pick among a few more attacking players further forward.
Really, the choice seems to come down to Johnson or former Galaxy attacker Jose Villarreal, because it seems clear that Justin Meram and rookie Chris Mueller will take two spots and Yotun will be out there somewhere as well. Kreis could play Yotun and Johnson closer to Higuita in more of a 433 look, but we’ll see.
Meram showed last year that he can be a threat from a central spot rather than always having to cut inside from the left wing. He’s been a terror for United doing the latter, though, and I suspect the change of scenery isn’t going to change that. Mueller, on the other hand, has never played against D.C., but we think very highly of him anyway. He’s more of a chance creator than a goalscorer, but he has scored in the preseason and Orlando apparently really likes what they’ve seen. With Mueller and Villarreal both able to play any of the three attacking midfield roles, and both Meram and Yotun comfortable both centrally and on the left, there might be quite a bit of fluidity here.
Up front, Dwyer’s replacement is Stefano Pinho, who will make his MLS debut five seasons after first being drafted (Colorado selected him after an impressive combine showing, but opted not to offer him a deal). Since then, the Brazilian has played in his home country and Finland before returning to the U.S. to torment NASL defenses. At 6’, Pinho is more of a target in the air than Dwyer, and while he lacks the English-American’s relentlessness, he puts in a decent shift and is definitely capable of being a threat.
Off the bench, Villarreal will probably figure in if he doesn’t get a start. Another player to look out for is promising USYNT midfielder Pierre da Silva, who has apparently been looking sharp on the right wing in preseason. He can play on either side, giving Kreis some more versatility. Speaking of which, midfield utility man Tony Rocha isn’t going to play a ton this year, but with all these absences he’s probably a candidate to step in if Orlando has a lead to protect.