There's good news and bad news for Orlando City fans this week. The good news is that star Midfielder Sacha Kljestan has completed his MLS-mandated suspension from the 2017 playoffs and will be able to play this weekend. The bad news is that striker Stefano Pinho injured his ankle in the first half of the March 10 match against Minnesota United and no diagnosis had yet been given by Monday morning. Per media reports, all the club had indicated is that they would wait for the swelling to subside before starting treatment on the injury. So it's likely that Pinho will miss the match at NYCFC this coming weekend (unless the injury turns out to be far less severe than it seems).
With Pinho added to the injury watch list for 2018, it leaves me the task of trying to divine which players will be important for the club for Saturday's match. Fortunately, this week I have some input from a reader who has offered several suggestions. It's obvious what we have been doing hasn't worked so far, so I'm happy to take ideas from wherever and see if they might help us to change the results and bring us some victories.
Players to Watch: NYCFC
- David Villa - Any time David Villa is on the pitch, you almost can't help watching him. Even as an elder statesman in the MLS he's still a dangerous striker and plays a fun, energetic, and fluid style of football. He opened his 2018 scoring account last week against the LA Galaxy. Villa has the ability to frustrate many defenses across MLS. In the past three seasons, the youthful Tommy Redding was often called upon to mark Villa, and in some of those matches, the youngster was quite effective. But with so many new faces on our back line, we will have to see who is assigned to cover the all-time leading scorer for Spain's national team.
- Anton Tinnerholm - Tinnerholm opened the scoring in the last match against the LA Galaxy with a thunderous goal that he plucked out of midair on a bounce and hammered off the underside of the crossbar as it flew into the net. It was a first touch strike that the Swedish International caught with an extended left leg and rifled past Galaxy keeper David Bingham with authority. The play was set up by a pass from Tinnerholm to Jesus Medina, who in turn poked it ahead to Villa. Villa crossed the into the box where Galaxy defender Michael Ciani was guilty of a lazy clearance attempt that bounced right to Tinnerholm, who rifled it past the outstretched arms of Bingham.
- Jesus Medina - Medina registered both a goal and an assist in the season opener on March 4 at Sporting KC. He was also involved in the buildup to the Tinnerholm goal against the LA Galaxy. Medina is averaging 18 passes over the first two matches for NYCFC, including three key passes in the victory over the Galaxy. The Paraguayan Designated Player is an MLS rookie this year, having been signed by Patrick Viera's side from Club Libertad. Last year, the 20-year-old was the Captain of his U-20 National Team in a pair of Copa Sudamericano tournaments where he played four matches and scored two goals.
Players to Watch: OCSC
- Sacha Kljestan - We haven't had a true number 10 player on the pitch for the first few matches. Kljestan has been the MLS assist leader the last two seasons and is comfortable in that number 10 role as the primary playmaker and distributor of the ball. If Jason Kreis retains his favored 4-4-2 diamond formation, I would expect to see Kljestan at the forward tip of the diamond where he can help to set up both Chris Mueller and Justin Meram. In the last two matches, Meram has been having to run a lot of the offense as well as try to score, and that has meant he hasn't been as effective in either role as he might be if he had less of the burden.
- Chris Mueller - Mueller has played a lot of minutes in the first two matches and is likely to be a starter again on Saturday. With Kljestan in the lineup and looking to find the open man, it will be interesting if Mueller's youth balanced against Justin Meram's experience and reputation in the league will cause NYCFC to leave the rookie more open than the veteran. Kljestan's presence on the pitch is also likely to draw a lot of defensive attention, so Mueller may find himself with more breathing room and open space in front of the goal to receive passes and try to put away his first professional goal.
- Jonathan Spector - This is where I found inspiration from a reader's comment on my match recap from the weekend. One of my readers, Aaron W., pointed out that Jonathan Spector is perfectly capable of playing the defensive midfield position, so I am curious if we may see him moved forward to the base of the midfield diamond formation. This would make room on the back line for both Amro Tarek and Lamine Sane. We have seen Spector's effectiveness when he moves up into the attack, and if he's given a bit of freedom to be a little higher in the formation, he might be able to help Orlando City start more counter-attack chances and flip the momentum of the field before the opposing defense can recover.
Tomorrow on the blog, watch for my Series History column, and later this week I'll update the Injury Tracker when there is more news about Stefano Pinho and the other players who have been out.
Which Orlando City players do think will need to have an outstanding match to pull off the road win? Which players from NYCFC do you believe pose the biggest matchup challenge for our side? Let me know in the comments below!