The roller coaster ride continues after a weak draw against Real Salt Lake. Dallas travels to the Sunshine state Saturday to take on Orlando City SC. Orlando are once again in the middle of a disappointing season. They are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 26 points. Dallas is in sixth place in the Western Conference with 33 points thus far.
What to say about Orlando? You look at some of the names on the roster…double check the standings…then scratch your head. Surely a team with the likes of Nani, Dom Dwyer, and Sacha Kljestan would be farther up the standings than ninth place. Surely, they would be in the upper third (fine, upper half) in the goals scored department. Surely, after being in the league for it’s now fifth year, things would have gotten better. A slow build type team, or maybe a fixed the error-of-their-ways type. Nope, nope, and nope. Orlando’s best season was it’s first and it is only kind of on pace to match it’s record of 12 wins from that inaugural MLS season. But instead of delving into that fractured history, let’s see who and what Orlando is doing this season to get things turned around.
Starting with Nani, the bright new/old star in MLS. You’d be forgiven if you had no idea the former Manchester United player was now plying his trade in the Florida sun. He’s flown under the radar as Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney have taken all the shine this season. But let’s set things straight – with eight goals and eight assists this season (leading Orlando in both categories) he’s been worth every penny Orlando is paying him. He can still burn his defender down the sideline, can still whip in a deadly cross, can cut inside a fire off a shot, and can create for his teammates better than anyone else on said team. He’s what a DP player should be – a focal point for an offense that everyone else can build off of – and he makes most everyone else around him better.
Which leads us to former FC Dallas striker Tesho Akindele. The love/hate relationship Tesho endured towards the end of his tenure stemmed primarily from two things not solely controllable by him. First, expectations after his rookie season were sent soaring, and second his position played on the field. While he scored seven goals that rookie season, he never made it back to that number. He also got moved all over the attacking front and was never given a large amount of time to settle in at what has become his best position – striker. But moving to Orlando this offseason has solved both issues. Tesho has seven goals through 18 games. His pace has always been a weapon, but he has become more clinical in front of goal, although he still has spotty decision making. Dwyer may well be back to starting for this game, and it’s worth mentioning he has five goals and three assists this season…but as a DP striker. At this point, I’m not sure if it’s age, skill regression, being overrated before, my SKC jaded-ness, or him just being in Orlando – but I would not want that contract attached to that production.
So that’s Nani on one wing, and Tesho or Dom at striker. At the other wing, Orlando has been running a combination of players out. Chris Mueller has had a fine second season with five goals and three assists playing out on the wing. When not starting out there he acts as a nice attacking threat off the bench. Sacha Kljestan has been shoe horned out to the wing on occasion although that’s mainly just to get him on the field. While Mueller is more of a classic winger – pacey, technical, fine crosser – Kljestan is the no. 10 whose team no longer builds around his abilities. And in early July, Orlando brought in Brazilian Robinho (not THAT one) from Columbus. The young winger wasn’t quite impactful enough for the Crew, so he’s being given a chance in Orlando.
In the midfield, we find Kljestan in his more natural habitat, although with only one goal and one assist, it hasn’t always mattered. Alongside him or in place of him will be the always dependable Will Johnson. New defensive midfielder Sebastian Mendez has been effective as both a holding mid and a box to box type. If those three start, that leaves Oriol Rosell and Dillion Powers on the bench. It’s here that I mention just how much of an offensive black hole the entire midfield is. Kljestan and Johnson each have one goal and one assist, but the other three players named are basically holding midfielders. By design or not, almost all of Orlando’s offensive production comes from the attackers or overlapping full backs. A 4-3-3 formation can be variable in style, but this is classic wing play in Orlando. Nani likes to cut in, leaving the wing open for the full backs to send in crosses, and indeed left back Joao Moutinho has three assists this season. Likewise, Mueller can whip in crosses effectively and let right back Ruan (three assists) get in on the action too. But this leaves very little for the midfielders to do in attacking terms. Orlando basically bypasses the middle of the field to get down the wings. Again, is this a stylistic determination or a player quality issue? “Both” is the correct answer here.
Orlando set out in the offseason to remake its back line. They traded for Joao Moutinho, last season’s no. 1 SuperDraft from LAFC to start at left back in December. In January they signed Ruan out of Brazil to man the right back spot. And then in February they signed Robin Jansson from Sweden to start at center back. The Swede has brought Europa league experience to the back line and has partnered with Lamine Sane as the center back pairing of choice. In goal we find Brian Rowe, who was also signed this off season.
Now, take some of these starter names with a grain of salt. Orlando is one of the most rotated teams in the league. But no matter the names on the starting XI, the clear and obvious danger is Nani. He is arguably the most talented winger this side of Carlos Vela in the league. Dom Dwyer is a known threat and Tesho is certainly capable of the spectacular – both good and bad. But apart from those three + Mueller I suppose, Dallas should be able to dictate the terms of this match, even on the road. With overlapping fullbacks, and wingers who cut-in, there’s always the danger of being countered against down the vacant wing. Dallas can exploit that with several different players and attack an average defense.
Key Matchup: Bressan vs. Nani
With Reggie Cannon out due to card accumulation, the main man facing Nani will be Bressan. The Brazilian will have a tough matchup but has been solid all season. If he shuts Nani down, it should be smooth sailing for Dallas’ attack to go out and win the game. But Nani’s athleticism can get the better of almost anyone and if he gets through Bressan, it could be game over for the defense.
Three Keys to the Game
1. Last Chance Strikers – With multiple interviews stating FC Dallas is on the look out for an impact attacker/striker, this might be the last game for Dom Badji or Jesus Ferreira to stake a claim to the starting spot for the remainder of the season. If anything, the pressure of seeing Coleman up and going again should be enough to light a fire. But somebody on this team needs to start taking – and finishing – their goal scoring chances.
2. Youth in the Middle – With Bryan Acosta out, we will once again have a chance to see all teenagers in the midfield if Edwin Cerillo starts over Jacori Hayes. That has looked terrific (Toronto) and awful (Portland) and all the shades in between this season. Let’s hope it’s a good look this week.
3. Keeper of the Year – I’m going to echo our own Drew Epperley here and state that Jesse Gonzalez is putting up a terrific season and that has a chance to win him an award or two. With Nani, Dwyer, and Tesho in fine form, Jesse can keep the Keeper of the Year award in his sights with another clean sheet.
After last weeks disappointing result, I hesitate to call for three points on the road. Last week was an opportunity missed but it didn’t damage our playoff chances too much. But this week – even on the road – Dallas needs to beat the ninth place team in the East. Dropping points against lower third teams is not a good sign and would really start to put a strain on this team’s chances at a playoff game. It wouldn’t end their chances, there’s still plenty to be played, but it could damage the psyche enough. With all that in mind, I think a 1-0 win helps get Dallas back on the path toward playoff safety.