D.C. United is barely halfway through their fixture list for 2018, and they’re already facing Orlando City for the third time. Bizarrely, however, there’s no continuity between the games other than United taking a lead but not getting a win. In the opener, against a Jason Kreis-coached team, United were up a goal and a man only to get outplayed for the final 50 minutes and concede a last-gasp equalizer.
Kreis got fired by the time summer rolled around, and with interim coach Bobby Murphy on the sidelines at the SoccerPlex, United went up early, coughed up a goal soon thereafter, and couldn’t finish numerous chances before being eliminated on penalties. Kreis sent his team out in a 442 diamond, while Murphy played 343. And now, new boss James O’Connor have moved into a 433 while shifting several players into new roles.
O’Connor’s start with the Lions hasn’t caused an immediate improvement. The former Louisville City head coach has gone 1W-1D-4L since taking over, which is better than the eight-game losing streak in league play that Orlando was on before he was appointed, but is still 4 losses in 6 games. O’Connor hasn’t been helped by the comings and goings of the transfer window, or by the lengthy injury list that has been in place for Orlando’s entire MLS existence.
This week, that means rolling without 3 starters as well as the suspended Yoshimar Yotun.
Orlando City training. No new faces, Jonathan Spector is off to the side. Lamine Sané, Sacha Kljestan and Yoshi Yotún not here. pic.twitter.com/mkKNd0JoZV— Jordan Culver (@JordanCulver) August 11, 2018
They’re not just starters, either: Yotun and Sacha Kljestan (ankle) are probably the two best players on Orlando’s roster, and Jonathan Spector (hamstring strain) is no worse than fourth on that list. His partner in central defense Lamine Sane has not been the hit that most expected since his winter move from Werder Bremen, but he’s still got Bundesliga experience, and no team wants to be without their two starting center backs.
That leaves O’Connor with this likely eleven:
In goal, Earl Edwards Jr. has displaced longtime starter Joe Bendik since O’Connor took over as head coach. It’s not clear why, as Bendik generally is able to produce the kind of big saves needed on a team that gives away too many chances every week. Edwards Jr. has looked shaky since taking over the job, including giving up a preposterously bad goal to the Revolution last week, but he did save Yamil Asad’s penalty back in that Open Cup match.
After missing some time due to injury, Scott Sutter has returned at right back in the past couple of games, pushing RJ Allen back to the bench. Sutter is maybe the one Orlando defender who seems solid and reliable, and he’s not bad at all going forward. On the other side, PC (a.k.a. Victor Giro, but that’s less fun) has not really convinced since stepping into a starting role after O’Connor moved Mohamed El-Munir up into a left forward role. United should definitely target him if they’re going to pick one side over the other.
With Spector and Sane out, Orlando will almost certainly go with newcomer Shane O’Neill alongside Amro Tarek, who has played more than any other Lions center back despite being initially brought in to be second-choice. O’Neill, after 3 years of being sent out all over Europe on loan by Cypriot club Apollon Limassol (who never actually put him into a game of their own), is back in MLS. He’s still a pretty good passer out of the back, but he’s not the most agile, and Orlando seems more willing than able when it comes to playing out of defense.
Tony Rocha has surprisingly become O’Connor’s choice at the base of the midfield, especially with Uri Rosell carrying some sort of unknown injury per The Mane Land’s PawedCast. Cristian Higuita would probably make more sense than Rocha, who is a career MLS utility man who has played as a defensive-minded presence on both flanks (both at fullback and in the midfield) and as a #8, but O’Connor rates Rocha quite highly. He’s a bit busier than your normal anchor midfielder, chasing things down that he should perhaps leave to other players, so United will want to get him running out of position before attacking the space he vacates.
Higuita is still a starter, though, bringing his combative style of play a bit further up the field than we’re used to seeing. With Yotun suspended, he’ll be joined by Will Johnson, an even more combative midfielder, in what will be a midfield without a playmaker. United needs to win the gamesmanship battle here, because both Johnson and Higuita are prone to picking up needless cards and losing their focus once they get angry. They’ll also want to play quickly, because if referee Jose Carlos Rivero decides not to be strict, Johnson and Higuita will kick anyone that gets close to them.
A quick note on Yotun’s importance to this Orlando team from MLSsoccer.com’s preview:
In 685+ minutes without Yoshi Yotun, Orlando are averaging 0.5 goals scored and 2.8 goals against per 90 (averaging 1.8 goals for and 1.9 goals against per 90 in 1,548+ minutes with him). Yotun will miss this match after receiving a red card last week.
Up front, Josue Colman will step into Sacha Kljestan’s shoes. Kljestan was still the team’s playmaker despite being out on the right side in the last two games, and O’Connor granted him the freedom to drift into the middle whenever necessary. Colman replaced him after he appeared to sprain his ankle in the first half last weekend, and had a similar role. However, Colman doesn’t have anywhere near the vision Kljestan does, and he’s usually unwilling to play simply and keep the ball moving. Instead, look for Colman to go for the dribble more often than not. If United can funnel him into traffic, they should be able to contain him.
Out on the left, El-Munir has been pushed up from left back to mixed result. He’s extremely fast and direct, which benefits this group, but it sometimes seems like Orlando isn’t sure how to connect with him in this role, and vice versa. If O’Connor wants to change things up on either wing, he has a pretty good option in Chris Mueller, but it seems more likely that the rookie will remain a super-sub.
The one bright spot for Orlando has been the play of Dom Dwyer, who is as aggressive and difficult to defend as ever. He’s looking to run the channels a bit more often recently, and he’s been dangerous (3 goals in his last 4 starts) despite his team’s troubles. Dwyer is still going to look to initiate contact and get away with fouls whenever possible, so United’s center backs will need to stay composed while keeping everyone connected.
Mueller is a pretty likely sub to enter this game, and while he could play either wing, we could also see him in the midfield if Orlando needs a goal. O’Connor made an intriguing switch last week against New England, bringing on Stefano Pinho for PC while dropping Rocha and El-Munir back and switching to a 532, so don’t be surprised if we see something similar here.