CLB vs. OCSC: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

So if I'm a glass half-full kind of guy, I would be gloating that my pre-match prediction was half right. I predicted a 3 - 2 scoreline in favor of Orlando City. And the Crew were compliant and kept up their end of the bargain, scoring two goals off the foot of the ever-dangerous Justin Meram. Unfortunately, however, Orlando City failed to put any balls in the back of the net today and suffered a 2 - nil loss at half-empty Mapfre Stadium in Columbus.

The Good

If you're looking for something good to take away from the match, you can be happy with the way that the lads created a lot of chances for themselves. After letting Meram score the first goal in the 13th minute on a wide-angle shot from outside the left edge of the six-yard box to inside the far post, Orlando City's defense seemed to wake up, and they did a good job of consistently tackling the ball away from Crew players. 

While Orlando City created far more chances than did Columbus (14 - 6 edge in shots), they had the barest edge in possession, holding the ball only 50.3% of the time. And the shot distribution was good as well. Every one of the starting forwards and midfielders had at least one shot in the game, with Carlos Rivas and Giles Barnes registering two shots each. In addition, there were even some defenders who took shots, and Will Johnson was the most ambitious shooter of the match, registering four shots (1 shot on goal). 

And Orlando City also led in some of the stats that often lead to victories, leading the match in corners (6 to 4), crosses (19 to 9), duels won (48 to 40), and tackles won (13 to 10). Of course they also trailed in the most important stat of all--goals on the scoreboard!

The Bad

Orlando City has played much better defense in the first two matches of 2017 than they did in 2016, but today there was some evidence of the old bad habits. Both of Meram's goals came when defenders had cheated too far forward and allowed Columbus to get numbers going toward Joe Bendik's goal.

Meram's first goal in the 13th minute came on a counter-attack when Columbus managed to gain an advantage with two players slipping behind the last defender running down the left side of the pitch. Ola Kamara slotted to the inside and trailed just behind Meram to provide an outlet if needed, but Meram managed to stay ahead of Jose Aja as he tried to cross and provide a block. Meram's shot from just outside the top left corner of the six-yard box slipped between Aja and a diving Bendik to find the silk on the far side of the goal. 

On the second goal of the day, it started with a counter-attack when Federico Higuain tackled the ball off the boot of Antonio Nocerino. Orlando City's defense had been pushing up, and Higuain managed to find Meram out wide on the left side of the pitch again, with two more black shirts spread across the field to the far side of the goal. Orlando City's defenders tried to recover, but Meram made a couple of nifty moves on the ball to pull it into the left edge of the six-yard box, then blasted a ball through traffic that missed all the sprawling bodies until it found the back of the net.

In the case of the second goal, Orlando City managed to get some defenders between the shooter and the goal, but the extra Crew players meant they were not focused solely on the man with the ball and had to be focused on marking other players, giving Meram a chance to line up his shot and deliver it with pinpoint precision.

The Ugly

There must have been a mixup in the calendar used by the Crew today, because they acted like it was Cinco de Mayo and that MPG was the pinata. Perez-Garcia went clattering to the turf as the result of elbows, hip checks, and shoves in the back more times than is reasonable. To add insult to injury, the referee hardly doled out any punishment for the repeated offenses, other than a single meaningless caution in the 19th minute to Justin Meram after what was far from the most abusive foul of the day against MPG. 

Then there was the sight that nobody likes to see--a starter down on the pitch clutching the back of his thigh in the hamstring area. This time it was Jose Aja who was bit, and Orlando Sentinel reporter Alicia DelGallo confirmed in a post-match tweet that the club indicated the injury was a grade 1 hamstring strain and that he will be evaluated once the team returns to Orlando. According to numerous medical web sites, the grade 1 strain is the mildest form and usually takes a few days to heal. However, I'd be surprised to see Aja start the next match on April 9, unless examinations find that the tweak is even more mild than originally thought. It seems like Orlando City has had a bad habit in the past of bringing players back from such injuries too early, only to see them get hurt again and be out longer, so I'm hopeful that during the off-season they have learned to give the players a little more time to heal.

Finally, the ugliest thing of all is the scoreline of 2 - nil against, and the fact that the team brought back zero points from the road match. This vaults Columbus into sole possession of first place in the East on 10 points, a position they will hold through this week since no other teams that are yet to complete their matches have a chance of catching them. As for Orlando City, they have dropped to 5th place after the loss. New England could catch them on points if they beat Portland in their late-night match on Sunday, but even if they pass Orlando it should keep OCSC above the line.

What were your thoughts on the match? Did anyone stand out as having a surprisingly good performance? What player or phase of the game disappointed you most? Let me know in the comments below!

CLB vs. OCSC: Previews and Predictions

Due to the international break and the weather postponement of the week 2 match, Orlando City (2 - 0 - 0, 6 points) gets its first road test of the season today against Columbus Crew (2 - 1 - 1, 7 points). Both teams are riding two-match win streaks. Since the Crew have played four matches so far, it's hard to make real comparisons, but Orlando City is averaging 1.5 goals per match scored while giving up only 0.5 goals per match. Meanwhile, Columbus is averaging 1.8 goals per match scored while giving up 1.5 goals per match.

Columbus is tied with two other clubs (Atlanta United FC and New York Red Bulls) for first in the East, while Orlando City sits merely one point behind, tied with Toronto FC for fourth. The series between the two clubs includes five matches, with Columbus winning twice, Orlando City winning once, and two draws. At Mapfre Stadium, the teams have tangled twice, with Columbus winning one time and the teams drawing once.

Players to Watch

The home side have a number of players who are always dangerous. Striker Ola Kamara has three goals in the first four matches of the season, and is always a threat to score. And Justin Meram has two assists and one goal from his midfield position, as he is often involved in buildup and attacks by Columbus. Those are familiar faces to Orlando City fans that have watched this rivalry develop. But the home team has three new faces that could prove equally challenging. Homegrown Defender Alex Crognale won man of the match honors in his MLS debut earlier this season, and rookie Niko Hansen scored a goal in the team's recent 3 - 2 victory over Portland. Finally, Columbus made a trade with Vancouver to acquire Kekuta Manneh earlier this week, and we all know how the trade with Vancouver for Giles Barnes has worked out to benefit Orlando City. 

Finally, there is an exciting new addition for Columbus fans--the additions of capos to lead the supporters in chants. While "The Wall" for Orlando City has a long tradition back to USL days of having well-organized leadership, the concept is surprisingly brand new for Columbus, which is one of the original MLS sides. Many old school Crew fans were skeptical about the addition of capos to the Nordecke supporters section, but according to MLS.com many of those skeptics found the experience as exciting as we have known it to be here in Orlando.

For Orlando City, all eyes will be on Cyle Larin out of the gate. Larin has all three of Orlando City's goals in the early going, and he has been getting assists from the likes of Giles Barnes, Carlos Rivas, and MPG. The biggest improvement in the team over 2016 for Orlando City has so far been in the defense. NYCFC probed the defense throughout the opening week match at Orlando City Stadium, but rarely found opportunities to get a clean shot to test Joe Bendik.

With all the firepower that Columbus brings to bear on opponents, the match will be another big test for the new defense. And I think it's important that someone other than Cyle Larin find the back of the net for Orlando City, since it will eventually become too easy for teams to simply mark Larin with multiple players whenever the team pushes the attack forward. Fortunately, however, it has looked like Carlos Rivas, Giles Barnes, MPG, and others have been close to scoring so far. Perhaps today will be the day that more scorers emerge for Orlando City.

Prediction

The weather in Columbus will be brisk, with the forecast calling for 50 degree temperatures under a cloudy sky. Those temperatures and conditions should be comfortable for both teams, and they are forecast to persist throughout the entire match. I think the Columbus attack may prove to be the most potent Orlando City has faced so far, but I'm going with my purple-tinted glasses today and I'll predict a 3 - 2 victory for the road team, with at least one of the Orlando City goals scored by someone other than Larin.

What about you? Do you think Orlando City can continue its perfect season and bring back three points? Or do you believe they will only manage a draw or suffer a defeat today? And will someone other than Cyle Larin manage to score for Orlando City today? Let me know in the comments below!

CLB vs. OCSC: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Last night Orlando City was on the road for the last match under interim head coach Bobby Murphy, and each half looked like it was taken from two separate matches. In the first half Columbus raced out to a 2 - 0 lead and it didn't seem like Orlando City had any answers. Then Bobby Murphy must have delivered the halftime speech of brief career as head coach, because the team came out determined not to return to Orlando empty handed.

The Good

  • Second Half Possession - I mentioned each half seemed like it came from a different game. As inept and lethargic as the squad looked in the first half, they looked the polar opposite in the second half: energized, intense, and determined to avoid a loss. In the second half, Orlando City had a bit over 54% possession. 
  • Second Half Scoring - In the 65th minute Kevin Molino scored unassisted to get Orlando City on the board, and five minutes later Molino had an assist as Cyle Larin scored to draw the match level. Molino continues to show that he was indeed ready to transition from USL to MLS and the club was smart to keep him.
  • "Super" Joe Bendik - The Orlando City keeper had seven saves on the night, and nearly saved his second PK of the season. In stoppage time at the end of the first half, Columbus was awarded a PK after the referee judged that Bendik took down Ola Kamara in the penalty area. Kamara's PK attempt went to keeper's left and that's the direction Bendik leaped, but the ball was perfectly placed to carom off the back edge of the goalpost and into the net. The ball was struck with just enough pace that even Joe's Superman leap wouldn't let him stretch out fast enough or far enough to stop the shot.
  • More Engaged Play - I've griped about Cyle Larin in the past for not being engaged when the team gets back on defense. But several times last night I saw him racing deep into our defending third of the pitch when the team needed more numbers to help try to stop scoring attempts. It's possible that in his message to the team Coach Kreis made it clear that strikers playing only offense is not good enough to be on the squad, and that Cyle is taking this message to heart. I also saw a number of times where the defense broke down by overrunning plays instead of by simple ball watching. If a player makes a mistake because he tries and guesses wrong, that's acceptable as imperfection, which is what I saw last night. When a player simply watches the other team play and expects someone else to do something about it, that's unacceptable laziness, and that's something I've seen way too much out of our team this season.
  • Kaka's Return - We can end the missing persons report on Kaka, but we can't cancel it altogether: now we need to get Brek Shea's picture put on the milk carton. The Captain returned to the pitch in the second half last night, and it seemed to spark the team awake. He was subbed out for Julio Baptista--personally I would have liked to see Baptista and Kaka on the pitch together--and it seemed the team came alive. Within minutes of his return the match was brought level. Even though he has not played in top form this season, I think his presence still commands such attention from the opponents that it opens more space for our more prolific scorers like Molino and Larin.

The Bad

  • First Half Possession - Remember how I said the match looked like each half came from separate games? Remember how Orlando City had the possession advantage in the second half? In the first half it was horrible: Columbus had a 55.3% possession advantage, which gave them an overall edge in possession for the match (53.5% for CLB, 46.5% for OCSC). 
  • First Half Scoring - Orlando City were shut out in the first half, and they didn't even have success in creating many opportunities for themselves during the opening 45 minutes. It seemed like every first or second touch by the club resulted in turning the ball over to Columbus. The only notable exception was a burst of offense in the seventh minute that saw Cyle Larin shoot on a tight angle that saw the ball bounce off the near side goalpost and out of bounds.

The Ugly

  • Defensive Skill Level - There have been so many problems with effort this season that it's been masking the fact that our defenders just aren't good enough to keep up with the top strikers in the league. I'm not saying they are unskilled or that they don't sometimes make great plays, but they just don't have the combination of speed and agility required to consistently beat and stop the attacks of opposing strikers without committing fouls. Some of them are too slow to keep pace, and some of them get caught up chasing the ball instead of staying focused on the man they are marking and thus drift out of position and are constantly racing to try to recover. The first goal for Columbus last night resulted from a true "Keystone Kops" moment related to this defensive shortfall. The goal happened when Seb Hines inadvertently ran a pic play against Servando Carrasco, letting Tony Tchani have an uncontested one-on-one shot at goal against Bendik. Tchani's shot was low and skipped under Bendik's arm as he dove for it. But if Hines and Carrasco had not collided, it's likely that Servando could have at least harried or disrupted Tchani enough to keep him from being able to pick the angle and timing of his shot as he wanted. Fixing this defensive deficit of the team is one of the top priorities of Coach Kreis, in my opinion, and I'll be excited to see what new signee Jose Aja can add to the squad when he gets his chance to play.
  • Another Draw - With 20 games in the books and 14 more left to play, Orlando City could set an MLS record for draws. They are sitting on 11 draws for the season, and need only 7 more to match the Chicago Fire's league record 18 draws, set in 2014. If they draw 8 of their final 14 matches, they will eclipse the records and get into the history books defying expectations... for mediocrity. 

What were your thoughts on the match? Did the energetic play make you optimistic for the rest of the season under Kreis? Or did the draw make you dread that we're going to be seeing more of the same from this squad for the rest of the season regardless of the coaching change? Do you think there is any hope for some of the existing roster of defenders if Coach Kreis deployed them differently, or do you think he just needs to upgrade the entire back line? Let me know in the comments below.

CLB vs. OCSC: Previews and Predictions

In a little over two weeks, Orlando City has gone from what seemed like a season-ending tailspin to a club filled with optimism. After listless performances back-to-back against Dallas FC and Houston, both following the departure of Adrian Winter and the Dallas match seeming to herald the firing of coach Adrian Heath, the club seemed like it was ready to pack in the 2016 season and give up.

But in the days that followed there was a much more energetic performance against the New York Red Bulls, which seemed to show signs of life even in a loss, and then there was an inspired performance against Vancouver which felt like a win even though the record books recorded a draw. And in the last three days the club have announced the hiring of new head coach Jason Kreis, and the signing of Uruguan defender Jose Aja. And news from the club today, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, indicates that Aja has traveled to Colombus and is cleared to play with the team.

But the new coach will not be in charge. The terms announced upon the hiring of Jason Kreis indicated that interim head coach Bobby Murphy will coach the team in Saturday night's match with Columbus, and Kreis will take over coaching duties when the team returns from the trip.

Players to Watch

Last season the biggest threat in Columbus was a player named Kamara--Kei Kamara. This year, the leading scorer in Columbus is also named Kamara, but it's Ola Kamara. Kamara has 9 goals for Columbus in 13 matches played. Additionally, Federico Higuaim comes in scoring 3 goals on the season and Justin Merim has scored two goals. And in terms of setting up the offense, Ethan Finlay comes in leading the Crew with 6 assists on the season, Justin Merim has 5 assists, and three other players have 3 assists each. And goalkeeper Steve Clark is one of the few netminders in MLS who have more saves on the season than Joe Bendik. Clark has 69 saves from 98 shots on goal. Columbus also have new players they have signed: Norwegian defender Nicolai Naess, and goalkeeper Zack Steffan. 

For Orlando City, the club not only have new defender Aja available, but some familiar faces will be back in action. Somebody finally called T. G. Lee dairy and got Kaka off the milk carton. He has traveled with the team to Columbus and is scheduled to play in this match. Out of 19 matches in the season so far, the Captain has only appeared in 9, making him more like one of those B-list celebrities that always was in rotation as "special guest star" in those episodic TV dramas from the 1970s and 1980s. Brek Shea is also back from his one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation, and Carlos Rivas will be available for the game as there are no visa issues getting into Ohio... at least not yet.

Prediction

I am really curious how the team will respond to the meeting that new head coach Jason Kreis had with them. Quoting from his introductory press conference on Wednesday, he said the following about his first scheduled meeting with the players, which happened Thursday morning:

"My most immediate priority is... to get with the player tomorrow morning [and] spell out for them our vision for the club going forward, and let them know this is what it is going to mean to be an Orlando City Soccer Club member, and ask the players if that's what they want."

He went on to articulate that successful clubs demonstrate to players that a level of commitment and sacrifice are required to achieve the highest levels, and he wants to know sooner rather than later if any of the players will not buy into that so, as he said, "If you do not want to be here we need to learn that quickly and move you on."

I think perhaps Coach Heath showed a degree of patience with players in terms of them finding their motivation because of the potential skills they brought to the club; it sounds like Kreis will not tolerate this. I have felt at times watching matches this season that there have been times when several players have looked like they lacked motivation or sufficient desire to win, and I felt like they needed someone to light a fire under them. In this, I am pleased with the comments of Coach Kreis, and if the players look like they are being lazy or apathetic, then they do not deserve to wear the crest of this team--whether they make seven-figure salaries or the MLS league minimum. Full stop.

Given his comments at his introductory presser, I will be very curious how the team performs tomorrow. I would hope that they all know their jobs are on the line, so that they will all play with even more energy and enthusiasm as they did in Vancouver. If the club gives us that kind of effort every match, then I can accept those occasions when their best is just not good enough to win against a superior team. It's when they get sloppy and lazy and lethargic and disinterested in whether they win or lose that I start to feel betrayed as a fan and a season ticket holder of the club.

We are fortunate in the timing of the match, as Columbus sits 9th place in the East, so it should statistically be a good matchup for us. Orlando City comes in scoring 30 goals on the season while Columbus only have 24 goals. Orlando City also have a better goal differential (-3) than Columbus (-6) on the season.

I think the motivation from Coach Kreis will have the team attentive, on point, and eager to prove to their new coach that they want to be on the team and that they have the skill to deserve to be there. Given that, I'm going to predict a big win for the club, and say that they will come back with a 3 - 0 victory and three important points.

What about you? Do you think the club will win on Saturday night? What do you think about the Coach Kreis hire? Do you believe it was a good hire, or is there someone else you think they should have brought in if they were determined to change coaches? Let me know in the comments below!