Today is a rare treat in the life of an Orlando City soccer fan: there are two matches on the same day, back-to-back. Tonight at 7:30 the Pride take on the Chicago Red Stars at Camping World Stadium. Then at 10:00 Orlando City's MLS side will kick off against Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place. So today you get two, two previews in one!
Pride vs. Chicago Red Stars
The Pride and the Red Stars enter tonight's match equal on points at 18 after both clubs have played 12 matches. The Red Stars are in 4th place in the table and the Pride sit 5th, but the Pride have a better goal differential, being equal at 12 goals for and against, while the Red Stars have only scored 11 goals and have given up 12 on the season.
The Pride are without their six Olympic players again, but they already have a game under their belts without these players and took three points from the visiting Boston Breakers last match with a dramatic brace by Kristen Edmonds at the end of the match, with the winner coming during injury time just before the final whistle to end the game. In many ways, the Breakers were the perfect team to give the Pride some confidence without their Olympic players, as they sit at the bottom of the league table. The Red Stars will be a much tougher opponent, as they are trying to cling to the final spot in the playoffs. A win for either team will put some further separation between them and the other teams hoping to make the playoffs, which is important as the league begins looking toward the post-season.
Players to Watch
The Red Stars, unsurprisingly, are also missing some players for the Olympics. Just counting the USWNT alone, Julie Johnston, Christen Press, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher are all at Olympic Training camp. And since USWNT Coach Jill Ellis has the team training here in Orlando, it's possible we'll see some of those players at the stadium tonight.
But even without their US Olympic athletes, the Red Stars are still a potent threat. Jennifer Hoy, Sofia Huerta, and Casey Short all have multiple goals on the season. And backup goalkeeper Michelle Dalton is still very good. She played in 12 matches for the Red Stars in 2015 and led the league with a 0.917 goals against average in 2015. So it's not going to be easy to put the ball past her into the net.
For the Pride, we should expect to see more of our amateur call-ups and rookie players. Dani Weatherholt and Christina Burkenroad both saw playing time last week, and I'd expect to see more of that tonight. I was also pleased that Leah Fortune got to play last week, and I think she could be a big contributor to the team, especially if the versatile and reliable Kristen Edmonds is still suffering any ill effects from the mugging she received after her second goal from the Boston goalie last week.
The Red Stars have been shut out three weeks in a row, losing 2 - 0 in all three of their most recent matches against the Portland Thorns, Western New York Flash, and the Washington Spirit. I think that the trend will continue, as Camping World Stadium has become a place that is tough for opponents in any soccer league to get a win. I think Kaitlyn Savage will get her first clean sheet for the Pride, and we will see our ladies prevail by the familiar score of 2 - 0.
What do you think? Tell me what you expect in the comments below... but only after you read about the other match in the double header.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Orlando City
Over on the other edge of the continent, Orlando City will be in action against the Vancouver Whitecaps. It will be a tough match for sure, but the long road trip has been made a little easier by the fact that the team did not have to return to Orlando between New York and Vancouver.
Players to Watch
Orlando City comes into the match with a depleted roster. Kaka is still nursing a calf injury that seems to have been initially suffered during his call-up to the Brazilian national team for the Copa America tournament earlier this year. And in the match on Wednesday night, Harrison Heath suffered an MCL injury that will keep him out of the lineup for 4 - 6 weeks as well. Rafael Ramos and Tommy Redding are both still suffering with hamstring injuries and are not yet ready to return to action.
To add to the injuries, there are other issues impacting the lineup. One of the more bizarre is a visa issue faced by Carlos Rivas. The Colombian player is unable to travel to Vancouver with the team because a visa problem is keeping him out of Canada. With some other seemingly ill-timed staff changes, it's easy to want to blame the front office for this fiasco, but as some fans pointed out on twitter last night, when there are three governments involved, it's possible that there is some political reason between Canada and Colombia that is causing Rivas to suffer and it could be out of the control of the club altogether.
And then there's Brek Shea, who picked up his fifth yellow card on Wednesday night and will be out on suspension for card accumulation. After the match, Shea said the yellow came after he yelled at a teammate, and I have no reason to doubt him. But during the match, the broadcast video appeared to show Shea deliver a cheap and needless foul against a Red Bulls player off the ball, and then it looked like he was yelling at the referee (he could have been yelling beyond him to a teammate as he says), that eventually caused the yellow card to come out for dissent. I think it's less important to focus on whom Brek was yelling at and more important to realize this incident is part of a bad pattern with the club. We have too many players that allow their emotions to get in the way of their skill on the pitch, and they just do dumb things without thinking how they will look to a referee or any third party viewing the match. It's a fine thing to have passion for your sport and to play with emotion, but players need to channel that emotion into productive results on the pitch and not yelling at teammates, officials, or opponents.
But Orlando City still has plenty of firepower on the pitch. Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino are the two leading scorers on the season and they will both be available, as will "super sub" Julio Baptista, who has scored two goals, assisted in another, and set up two PKs by forcing opponents to drag him down in the penalty area. The match should also be another opportunity for the much maligned Antonio Nocerino, whose play has failed to live up to expectations so far this year. I thought Nocerino had a better game against the Red Bulls than he has had recently, and I'm hoping he can open his account with some asists or goals before the end of the season.
As for Vancouver, they are a bit of a walking MASH unit themselves. The Whitecaps will be missing Christian Dean (miniscus), Russell Tiebert (quad), and Blas Perez (hamstring) for yet another match. And forward Kekuta Manneh just had surgery on his foot this week that will keep him out for some time. Additionally, Marcos Bustos has suffered an eye injury, and it's unclear if that will keep him out of the match or not.
Even with these injuries, there are some dangerous players on the roster. Vancouver is led in scoring (6 goals) and assists (5) by Pedro Morales. In addition, David Ousted leads MLS with 75 saves on the season. It's interesting to note that Ousted has had to face 111 shots, which is significantly more than the 97 faced by Joe Bendik. And that brings me to predictions.
As I said, Ousted is facing more shots than Bendik, which means that as much as we complain about the defense for Orlando City letting opponents get too many looks on goal, Vancouver is faring even worse in that department. In fact, they've given up more goals (33) than Orlando has so far this season. That, combined with the better energy and better effort I saw from Orlando City on Wednesday night, leads me to believe that Orlando City will end the goalless drought tonight, and I'm even going to predict they bring home a result. I predict a 1 - 1 draw for the match, and I think that we will see further evidence that the team is bonding and focusing on their ultimate goal for the season, which remains reaching the MLS playoffs.
But for us to get back to winning and scoring more goals, I think that the team has to break itself of a perennial bad habit. I think sometimes younger players (and our team has a lot of young players) get too enamored of setting up the perfect "video game" shot, so they dance around on the ball too long when they get it in the scoring third. Cyle Larin, Kevin Molino, and even Seb Hines are at their best scoring when they take first-touch strikes on the ball to put it in the back of the net. I will challenge the team to shoot first and think later tonight. When you are in the scoring third of the pitch and the ball comes to you, get in position before the ball arrives and make your first touch on it be the one that sends it toward the back of the net. The longer a player takes to dribble the ball around and try to get in position for the perfect shot, the more likely it is that the goalkeeper and defenders will get into position to block, deflect, or save it.
What about you? Who will need to step up tonight for Orlando City to get a result on the road? Do you think the team has a chance to score some goals, or will the scoreless drought continue? Let me know in the comments below!