Orlando comes in sitting last in the Eastern Conference. Although they are not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, hope was lost long ago. With only 25 points on the season, Orlando is 15 points out of the playoffs and 6th place Montreal.
After the draw in Portland, Dallas is still first in the West with 54 points after Sporting KC drew and LAFC lost last week. Dallas is now four points clear of LAFC, who have 50 points, and only two points ahead of SKC who sit on 52 points. The Western Conference playoff race is still extremely tight, with just eight points separating Dallas from 6th place Real Salt Lake.
As the season winds down to this last month, FC Dallas fans have been able to look forward to another playoff run. Yes, there have been ups and downs; big wins and bad losses. But Dallas has paced the Western Conference for most of the year, and never fallen too far off when they did slip up. Although the expectations weren’t as high considering last seasons… whatever… Dallas has been terrific. Orlando on the other hand, let’s just say this season has gotten away from them. After another hot start to the season, rattling off six wins in a row from the end of March to May, the Lions have one win in MLS play since then. One…win…since…May (to be fair, they won two US Open Cup games in June).
Expectations were high heading into this season after the defensive improvements from last year, and all the new faces Orlando brought in. Dom Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan were supposed shots across the bow to the rest of the league that Orlando meant business. And after the 6-3-1 start, things were looking up. But once again, a losing streak started, and the Front Office lost patience once again. Orlando fired coach Jason Kreis and moved on to James O’Connor, Orlando’s third coach in four seasons since making the jump up to MLS.
So, what can we expect from this Orlando side on Saturday? To be honest, no one is sure. Not me, not the Mane Land writers, not the coaching staff - shoot, probably not half the players. However, the past few games, and the last one in particular (against Houston) have shown a path forward for the remainder of the season and possibly the future. Finally playing with the back four envisioned all along by the front office, Orlando has taken a small step forward regarding goal prevention. Jonathan Spector’s return from injury has allowed summer signing Carlos Ascues to move up into the midfield. These two changes have reorganized the defense into a more effective group. Ascues range and ability on the ball allowed him to better shield the back line while also filling a hole in the midfield. His paring with Oriol Rossell has created a solid central midfield unit that is learning to work together and keep opposing teams out of the net.
The next key for Orlando is finding a way to jump start the offense. With 40 goals on the season, Orlando has had the third most feeble offense this year, behind only Colorado (bottom of the West) and…Columbus (weird). Although Dom Dwyer has had a solid, if unspectacular season, the pairing with Kljestan hasn’t been as fruitful as either experienced in their previous teams. Yoshimar Yotun, who was picked up last season during the summer transfer window, has been a key player when with the team. His three goals and 10 assists on the season only highlight how difficult it was to lose his creativity during the World Cup where he was off representing Peru. Those three players partnered with contributions from Will Johnson at right midfield and Scott Sutter and Mohammed El-Munir at full back make up the bulk of the attack for OSC. Reggie Cannon and Marquinhos Pedrosa will need to have an effective partnership with the Dallas wingers to keep the sideline closed while in defense.
Key Matchup: Coach Pareja vs Coach O’Conner
Let’s be honest - now that Dallas has a playoff spot wrapped up, it may be time to rest some people, maybe get some youth player’s some minutes, maybe experiment with the squad - or maybe not. Depending on how important this team views a first round bye and home field advantage, we may indeed see some of the kids play. If there was ever a game to try it out, it’s against this floundering Orlando team. At the same time, with 60 points in sight and home field advantage at their fingertips, I would not be surprised to see Dallas keep rolling out the main players to try and wrap things up and keep their good form together.
Three Keys to the Game:
1. Next Man Up - After a solid run from Cristian Colman, it was disheartening to hear about him tearing his ACL. It’s a tough loss for Dallas’ depth as well as their tactical flexibility. Colman represented a change of pace and style of play that Dallas could depend on when they needed to hold play up. Now it comes down to inserting Badji or Urruti back up top.
2. Creative Breakdown – The formation Orlando will be rolling out this game is designed to protect the middle of the field and back line. It’s an ideal formation for teams who want to bunker down and counter because they can essentially drop nine guys down into defense and still keep the glimmer of a counter attack alive with a central midfielder ready to turn and run. Hopefully Dallas can respond with a creative midfield group that can both breakdown a bunkered team, but also hold the fort for when the counter attack is on.
3. Shutout Streak – I know, one game does not a streak make – but it could be the start of one (fingers crossed). Dallas should be shooting for making it back to back games holding to opponent to zilch on the scoreboard.
Once again, I am of two minds when it comes to this game. After reading up on Orlando, I believe they may have stumbled onto a feasible plan to make games matter for them. But…they’re still last in the East with an inept offense. It would not surprise me one bit to see this game turn into the Columbus snooze-fest from a few weeks ago. Conversely, Dallas could also put up four goals, since Orlando just gave up that number to lowly Chicago. I am optimistic for a win, but not arrogant enough to call for anything crazy, just hopeful. I think a nice, conservative 1-0 win where the Hoops control the entire game sounds fine to me.