Columbus in Rearview: Altitude Ahead

Last night's US Open Cup Starting XI lineup for Orlando City caught me a bit off-guard if I'm completely honest. Then again, that's why I'm a humble blogger and not the manager of a professional sports franchise on any level.

Regular readers will remember my Sunday post when I predicted that the US Open Cup match would not see us play a majority of starters, and it would also see Columbus rest a majority of its usual Starting XI as well. For Orlando City, I was considering the much publicized and continual statements from Adrian Heath, owndership of the club, and players alike that they intend to make the MLS playoffs in the first season. I also was thinking about Saturday's Independence Day match, the first that our lads will play at altitude this season, when they will go west to face Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium, which sits at 4,500 feet ASL. But more about that later. For now let's enjoy and relive the fun of last night's home win.

US Open Cup vs. Columbus Crew

Columbus Crew's Gregg Berhalter made nine lineup changes between his MLS match last Saturday and Tuesday night's US Open Cup match. However, the gaffer started his best available Starting XI players, giving Brek Shea the night off to recover from a strain that forced him to leave the game in the 39th minute last week against Colorado. To be fair to both coaches, Berhalter's team had played only three days earlier, while Orlando City had been off nearly an entire week, meaning that playing the extra match was not as burdensome on our lads as it would be on the visitors.

The match opened with Columbus' eager bench players showing their quality on some early attacks. Inside the first five minutes, Adam Bedell took a strike at Tally Hall's goal that was deftly deflected by one of the keeper's "tall white skinny friends," to quote the inimitable Ray Hudson. The header deflected off the far goalpost and would have been a goal if the angle were any shallower. As it was the ball deflected back out into the field of play and was cleared by the home side, to the great relief of the crowd.

A few minutes later, Orlando City seemed to begin asserting the advantage of their strength, which they maintained throughout the half. In the eleventh minute, Kaka fed Rivas a through ball in the middle, but  the Colombian DP was a bit out of position to capitalize on it, and the ball was tackled away at the top of the 18-yard box. The play did foreshadow the two scoring strikes that would come later in the match, however.

Then in the 20th minute, Kaka took a free kick from the left top corner of the area that Sean St. Ledger guided into the back of the net with his outstretched foot. Unfortunately, however, St. Ledger was deemed to be offside by the Referee's Assistant, and the goal didn't count. Orlando City would not be denied, and in the next minute, Captain Kaka scored from the field of play, firing a scorching shot across the grass that found the far corner of the net under the diving form of Columbus keeper Brad Stuver. Darwin Ceren picked up the assist on the goal, and the confetti cannons littered the pitch with beautiful purple and gold spangles of fun.

In the 34th minute, Pedro Ribeiro was robbed of an assist credit, in this fan's opinion. He found himself in the area near the penalty spot, fighting against two or three Columbus defenders, and seemed like he was on the brink of getting clear to take a shot on goal himself. Then one of the defenders poked the ball away, rolling it back out of the area toward midfield. A charging Carlos Rivas struck the ball full force, sending a rising shot past the defenders and over the leaping form of keeper Brad Stuver to bury itself in the back of the net for Orlando City's second goal. It's a good thing the weave on the net was in fine repair, because the pace of the ball would probably have meant a member of the Supporters section would have lost a few teeth with the speed that Rivas's shot was traveling.

The half ended with Orlando City leading by the ultimate final tally of 2 - 0. But the second half showed plenty of gritty action as both teams had more chances to change the score line. Perhaps the most dramatic moment came in the 48th minute, when Sean St. Ledger made what has to be the save of the match. Columbus took a throw in from the bench side of the pitch down near the Orlando City six-yard box. A couple of touches later they passed the ball across to Kristinn Steindorsson, who struck a tremendous header that appeared to beat Tally Hall and be destined for a goal. But St. Ledger intercepted the ball as he raced to the goal line, heading it back out into the field of play where Orlando City ultimately cleared it and survived the threat.

That was about as close as either team came to finding a score in the second half, and the match ended with Orlando City's victory. The win capped a half of celebrations, as announcements informed the crowd that the US Women's National Team had gone up 2 - 0 over Germany in their World Cup Semifinal match, and then again informed us that the ladies had won their match and had advanced to the Women's World Cup final on Sunday.

While the scores were exciting for the crowd, the match was another important step for the team. In his post-game interview, Coach Heath indicated that he and the players were very serious abut wanting to win the US Open Cup tournament if they could, because that gives them a berth to play the best teams from across the region in the CONCACAF Club Cup tournament, which in turn leads the best teams into the FIFA Club World Cup. As a fan I like seeing our team win every match they play, but I have to admit that until today I've been focused on the chances of us making the MLS playoffs and seeing how far we can advance in that competition. I'm now hoping to see how far the squad can advance in these other competitions in order to see just how well we compete with some of the top clubs from some of the other leagues in the world.

MLS at Real Salt Lake

If Orlando City can benefit from a home-pitch advantage with the Florida humidity and heat, then Real Salt Lake can benefit from the altitude against every other MLS side except perhaps Colorado. Going into Saturday, that "twelfth man" of the altitude figures to be a factor for Orlando City.

On paper, Real Salt Lake and Orlando City SC appear to be clubs going in different directions. While Real Salt Lake is slipping further down the table and out of the playoff picture, Orlando City is bucking the trend of expansion sides and clawing its way toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings. It's unclear if they (or anyone else) will be able to catch DC United, but depending on how events unfold throughout the weekend, Orlando City SC has a chance to emerge from this round in as high as second place on the table.

However, I'm just not sure what effect the altitude will have on our lads. I've got cousins in Salt Lake City and I know that when I visit them I can definitely feel the effects of the thinner air when I do light or moderate exercise. If I tried running up and down a soccer pitch for 90 minutes in that altitude, it would certainly hamper my performance. Of course I'm not a professional athlete, so I won't dare to predict the effects would be the same on our players, but I have to think it may sap a little more energy to try to play in thinner air than it does to play near sea level as they do at home.

I look for it to be a tough match for Orlando City, but I think we stand a good chance of celebrating Independence Day with at least one point added to our season tally. And speaking of Independence Day, watch this blog tomorrow for details on how you can join me for a triple watch party of fireworks and football on Friday and Saturday evenings.

What about you? What are your predictions for the Real Salt Lake match? Do you think the altitude will be an issue for our lads, or do you think concerns over playing in the thin air are too "elevated"? (Sorry... I know that's a horrible pun, but I couldn't help myself.)

Vamos Orlando! Let's go out west and bring back three more points!