Tonight the Citrus Bowl will be the site of a prime-time clash between Orlando City SC and Portland Timbers. The match will be exciting for the home fans for several reasons, including a chance to retaining the undefeated streak, the return of Kaka, and the possible debut of the newest Lion on the roster.
Probably the biggest buzz around the game tonight is the return to the pitch of Kaka, who has missed the opening three Orlando City matches with what the club described as a "thigh strain" picked up in practice during the week before the match against RSL on March 6.
The club did well in Kaka's absence, earning five points and jumping to third place on the table in the East through games played on the weekend of March 18 - 20. Since then, Orlando City has not played any other matches, and the results have dropped us down to 4th place on the table, one point behind New England Revolution but with two games in hand over the Revs (they have played 5 games as of this morning, where we have played only 3).
It's also possible that tonight will see the debut of the newest member of the MLS roster for Orlando City, Julio "The Beast" Baptista. It's likely that Inchy alone knows at this point whether Baptista will be in the Starting XI for tonight or will even be in the 18 that are available for the match. I would be very surprised to see our new draftee Richie Lareya on the pitch tonight, since he played 90 minutes for OCB on Friday night. I suppose it's possible he will be dressed for the match and available as a sub, but I don't think it's typical for soccer managers to start players on only two days' rest.
Moving on to the pregame activities, we have our tailgate menu set for tonight. Since we are playing Portland, our natural inclination was to think of seafood. Salmon was a big hit last year when we played Vancouver, and a friend of a friend who lives in Portland suggested that Salmon, eggs, beer, and donuts are all very popular foods in The Rose City. But unfortunately, only two of our 2016 tailgate group have mature palates, and the others are like picky teenagers and immediately turned up their noses at the idea of fish for today's match.
So we have modified the plan a bit. We have gone with... wait for it... hamburgers. Boring, right? Well, not so fast my friends. These are no ordinary burgers. We made our burger patties with a mixture of ground sirloin and ground chuck, and we mixed into the meat a generous amount of Dijon mustard, some minced garlic, some dried minced onions, some Pub Burger seasoning, and a little bit of spicy heat. I made ten of those patties at home, while another member of our group went to a gourmet meat shop in town and bought several pre-made burger patties that have different kinds of spices and seasonings in them.
To complement our burgers, we have been a bit more Portland authentic. We are bringing a half-dozen eggs and some shredded cheese (to go on the burgers for anyone that wants to live dangerously). And one of our other tailgate members is stopping by a local gourmet donut shop in Sanford to pick up several Maple-and-bacon donuts (a Portland classic) along with a variety of others. And of course we are happy to be bringing some beer from Hour Glass Brewery in Longwood, which is always a staple of our tailgate parties. And we will have water and Gatorade to be sure that nobody gets too dehydrated. Feel free to stop by Lot A any time after 4:30 pm this afternoon. That's about when we think we'll be there and ready to go for the tailgate and the match.
What's At Stake
Tonight's match is a very important one for Orlando City. I already mentioned that Orlando City is off to a good start on the season. A win tonight would be huge for the team, not only because it would mean beating the defending MLS Cup champions, but because it could continue an important streak. By finishing 1 - 0 - 2 in our March games, Orlando City became the only team in the Eastern Conference to finish the month without a loss. Now we all know that it's nearly impossible for even the best teams in the world to go a whole season without a loss. El Clasico showed us that yesterday, with Messi's Barcelona squad ending a 39-match unbeaten streak when they gave up a late goal to Cristiano Ronaldo and lost to Real Madrid. And of course MLS has a lot more parity than La Liga, and as proud as we are of Orlando City, I don't think you'll find many fans who believe we are as formidable a club as Barcelona--at least not yet. Give us a few more years and maybe...
But beating Portland could extend the unbeaten streak to start the 2016 season. Three points would also put us at the top of the Eastern Conference table, as Montreal, Philadelphia, and New England are all tied for the conference lead on six points, just one ahead of us. Last year, you recall that Orlando City had a breakout match with a 4 - 0 win over defending 2014 MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy at home, so it's not unprecedented for this team to get up for big matches against the top opponents in the league.
Having said that, I'm sure Portland will be coming into this match looking for a measure of revenge after the upstart Orlando City squad beat the Timbers 2 - 0 on their home pitch last season. So as I see it, Portland comes in as the champions and they will remain the class of the league until someone wrests the Cup away from them. Hopefully that can be our Orlando City Lions at the end of the season, but for now I'm treating this as the biggest test of the season so far for our lads.
Previews and Predictions
I haven't done match previews in the past, but I'm going to do one this week. If it goes well, I may start trying to do more in the future.
Players to Watch
- Portland: Diego Valeri - Valeri is the top-ranked player for Portland on MLS Fantasy for 2016. Has played all but 3 minutes and scored one goal so far.
- Portland: Fanendo Adi - Adi has played every minute of all three games for Portland this year, and has three goals to his credit.
- Portland: Darlington Nagby - Nagby is off to a slow start this year. He has played every minute of the season but has no goals, and may be due for a big game.
- Orlando City: Kaka - Tonight's match will mark Kaka's 2016 debut for Orlando City. He had a tremendous pre-season, setting up four goals in one match from corner kick deliveries. Hopefully he can provide a spark to help more goals start sailing into the net for our lads.
- Orlando City: Cyle Larin - Cyle has a goal in every match so far in 2016. Can he continue that streak? Scoring a goal per match this season would guarantee that he would double his scoring from last season (17 goals).
- Orlando City: Joe Bendik - Bendik came up huge in Orlando City's last match at NYCFC, where he recorded six saves as the potent NYCFC offense peppered the goal with shots and was turned away every time. On the one hand, I hope our defense plays well enough that Bendik doesn't have to face that many shots. On the other, I hope he keeps up his tremendous form and can come out of the match with another clean sheet tonight.
Orlando City enters the match on five points, scoring 1.67 points per match; meanwhile, Portland comes in with four points, scoring only 1.33 points per match. Portland also comes in out of the playoff picture, managing only ninth place in the Western Conference, while Orlando City is in fourth, as mentioned earlier. A win could vault our lads to first place in the East, while a win for Portland could at best put them in a four-way tie for 4th place in the West.
But of course the biggest advantage for Orlando City tonight will be the home crowd. Our lads will be playing in front of the raucous Citrus Bowl crowd, led by The Wall and fueled by 30,000 other screaming, passionate fans. Playing in the Western Conference, Portland is no stranger to large and loud opposing crowds, having to play at Seattle every year. But Portland also has the time change and travel to contend with for this match, and I think those factors tilt the balance in favor of the home side.
My prediction is a 3 - 1 win for Orlando City. I see Cyle Larin continuing his scoring streak, as well as Kaka contributing at least one assist off of a set piece. For the visitors, I think Nagby gets himself on the score sheet for the season.
What do you think? Do you believe Orlando City can continue the unbeaten streak and jump to the top of the Eastern Conference? Or do you think the defending MLS Cup Champions will get back on championship form after their bye week and start pressing toward defending their championship crown? Let me know in the comments below!