What a strange season 2015 has been.
An opening day win against current league-leaders Vancouver; tough losses in Columbus and Salt Lake; a loss from a winning position in Chicago, then a near-comeback after a terrible start in Dallas. Not to mention the bizarre weather delays that saw the match carry on late into the night and the current rumours swirling around the front office, yet again.
It was never likely to be a kind start to the season, playing away from the comforts and cheers of home as the renovations at BMO Field come to fruition. Add in a few bye weeks, injuries, and suspensions – of which there have been far too many – and one has the makings for a three-point start through five matches. Were it not for Montreal, Toronto would find themselves sitting uncomfortably in the basement of the East; as it stands, they are one point above Montreal, having played one game more, but just three points off of Philadelphia and New York City, who have played three and two additional games, respectively.
Everyone knew that these first two months of the season, accounting for the first six matches, would be tough. In truth, as dismissive as it may sound, the season begins in earnest with the start of May; a month that will see Toronto play five league matches, including the home opener on May 10th against Houston, and kickoff this year's Voyageurs Cup with a series against Montreal – a little something to get the blood flowing.
Sunday's match therefore finds itself between two phases.
The bye weeks are over with, there is no more international duty on the immediate horizon; the games will come thick and fast. And though Dallas was disappointing, the ability to get right back on the field and work out the kinks and frustrations should allow for a normalization of the process – giving structure to a heretofore formless season.
When the season began, the consensus opinion was that a successful navigation of the road start would see Toronto return home on May 10th with something like a point a game. A win and a draw in their next two would see them equal that mark and provide some much needed momentum heading into crucial month of May.
Perhaps more than any previous match, a closer look at this weekend's opponent, Orlando City SC, is in order.
As one of two expansion sides entering the Eastern Conference this season, head coach Adrian Heath has assembled a very interesting squad of players, blending familiar MLS-proven assets, with a wide range of international talents, some exciting youth, and a healthy core of carryovers from the USL days.
The expansion seasons is always difficult, but Orlando City has as good a squad as any debutant in recent memory.
Heath set about building his side early, signing a handful of USL players – Kevin Molino, Darwin Ceren, and Tyler Turner to MLS contracts in the opening months of 2014. Kaka, the first of three designated players, was inked that July, while permanent transfers for Rafael Ramos and Estrela were solidified shortly thereafter.
Following that year's USL season, another batch of carryover signings were made – Luke Boden and Harrison Heath – and two months later, at the beginning of December, the MLS moves began.
Three players joined on December 8th with Amobi Okugo acquired from Philadelphia, Aurelien Collin from Sporting KC, and Tally Hall from Houston, Orlando splashing some allocation money in each, with various other pieces moving in the process – Philly also sent a draft pick in 2016, while Jalil Anibaba, after the expansion draft, moved to KC, and an international roster spot arrived with Hall from Houston.
Two days later the 2014 Expansion Draft was held, it saw Orlando City acquire ten players: the aforementioned Anibaba, as well as Donovan Ricketts, Tony Cascio, Pedro Ribeiro, Lewis Neal, Jairo Arrieta, Heath Pearce, Danny Mwanga, Mark Sherrod, and Eric Gehrig.
Orlando would use several of those pieces to further supplement the squad, sending Gehrig to Chicago for a 2016 draft pick, Sherrod to San Jose for a 2015 pick (that pick would turn into Akiel Barrett at 25th overall; he would be waived in preseason), and Arrieta to DC for an international roster spot. They were not able to come to terms with Pearce, who moved on to Swedish club, IFK Goteborg.
The Lions, as Orlando City are known, would not rest on their laurels, continuing to make moves before January's SuperDraft. A second designated player, Honduran striker Bryan Rochez, was signed, as was American international Brek Shea, returning from an ill-fated spell with Stoke City in England.
Also added during this period, with the start of the New Year, was Brazilian defender Gustavo, whose nickname is "Geladeira", or "The Refridgerator", but he would not last long, waived slight more than a month later – that is Geovanny Caicedo territory there.
The draft a week on saw Orlando City select Canadian striker Cyle Larin with the first-overall pick, adding Conor Donovan, the aforementioned Barrett, and Earl Edwards Jr. with later selections (22nd, 25th, and 43rd, respectively).
And January would close with another flurry of signatures: forward Martin Paterson arriving on loan from Huddersfield Town, and a pair of transfer from Deportivo Cali that saw Carlos Rivas, the third DP, and Cristian Higuita join.
But still they were not done assembling, adding three more pieces as the season fast approached – inking a pair of loan agreements - former TFC midfielder Eric Avila, from Santos Laguna, and Seb Hines, a defender from Middlesbrough - before ending their moves with the acquisition of experienced Irish defender Sean St Ledger on a free transfer.
Carefully built, using every means available, Heath has a very competitive assembly of talent at his disposal. Lessons have been learned in the flurry of expansion since Toronto joined in 2007 – both Orlando and New York City have far more depth than TFC in those days, and depth is required for a long MLS season.
They do have a few concerns that will limit options heading into Sunday's encounter: Rafael Ramos, their energetic right-back who has started six of their seven matches, is suspended following his nasty tackle on Columbus' Waylon Francis last weekend – Ramos was frustrated at not getting a call, lunging into his opponent, catching him high on the knee.
The most recent injury report – updated on Wednesday – has five other players listed as unavailable. Tally Hall, Pedro Ribeiro, and Martin Paterson have been long time absences – Hall tore his ACL last September, while Ribeiro pulled up with a hamstring issue at the start of April; Paterson is nursing a groin strain and is much closer to availability than the other two. Lewis Neal and Tony Cascio round out the injury list, their shorter term concerns mean they could be available for selection.
Aside from an experimental back-three against Montreal, when Orlando was severely short-handed during an international window, Heath has been remarkably consistent with his selections. As mentioned by Michael Citro of The Mane Land in How You Doin'?, Heath has tinkered with his formation a little in recent weeks, preferring a 4-3-3 to his optimal 4-2-3-1.
The question heading into the weekend is whether that sturdier, defensive-minded three-man shield continues at home. Both times it has appeared Orlando was away – playing in Portland and Columbus – and whether it remains in place will be the primary consideration Heath will be wrestling with before making a final decision.
It would make sense to adopt a more attacking pose at home, Toronto is hardly the most fear-inducing opponent, but, it could equally be wise to retain that sturdy base, clogging up the part of the pitch that Sebastian Giovinco roams – he is TFC's primary threat at this point.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Donovan Ricketts in goal; from right to left – Tyler Turner, Aurelien Collin, Seb Hines, and Brek Shea across the back; Darwin Ceren, Amobi Okugo, and Cristian Higuita across the midfield, with Kaka playing underneath a forward pairing of Kevin Molino and Cyle Larin.
The 4-3-3 takes on a lop-sided nature, with Molino shading to the right, Larin central, and Kaka roaming, opening up wide pastures on the left-flank for Shea to rampage forward.
That lineup would be consistent with what Heath has shown thus far, but there is always room for some tinkering. He has stated that the 3-0 loss in Columbus would not affect his thinking, but there is always the temptation to bring in changes.
Should they return to a 4-2-3-1, expect Eric Avila to take up that left-sided attacking midfield spot. If fit, Neal is an option there as well, as too is Cascio; that would require sacrificing on of the defensive midfield three. The likes of Estrela and Harrison Heath have yet to see any action this season.
Heath has been a touch slow to introduce more of his designated talent. Rochez has barely featured, limited to a trio of substitute's appearances, while Rivas too has largely been confined to the bench, seeing just 181 minutes of play through five appearances – two of which were starts. Both are young players, still adjusting to a new league and a new home, so it makes sense to not rush. It is a long season after all; could Sunday see their introduction to centre stage?
Mwanga, a former first-overall pick himself, got a run out in Montreal, but did not impress and is unlikely to dislodge either Larin or Molino. Though if Paterson is fit, Heath will be interested to see what he can contribute.
St Ledger is an option at the back, especially if Hines moves out to a full-back spot; the veteran has seen limited action since the Hines-Collin partnership has flourished through the early season action. Luke Boden showed well as a left-sided wing-back against the Impact, but is more-likely to be an option from the bench.
It is possible Heath could opt to go with the three-man back-line of Hines, Collin, and St Ledger, as he did in Montreal, but such a move, made out of desperation previously, is unlikely.
With seven matches under their belt, Orlando enter Sunday's match sitting in fifth place in the East with eight points in hand, courtesy a record of two wins, three losses, and two draws.
Both of their wins, however, have come on the road; they are winless at home through three-matches, losing their last two, having drawn their inaugural home match, against fellow expansion side New York City on opening day.
Mix Diskerud opened the scoring in the 76th minute for the visiting fans, but Kaka responded in stoppage-time when his free-kick deflected off the wall to handcuff Josh Saunders, sending the 62-thousand-plus fans in attendance into raptures – a red card to Collin, surprise, surprise, would not ruin their first-ever MLS match.
They would carry that positivity with them on the road, picking up their first MLS win the next week in Houston, when a hilarious own-goal from Tyler Deric under pressure from Ribeiro would prove enough to collect all three points.
Back home against Vancouver it was their turn to suffer in added time, as Octavio Rivero notched the lone goal of the game in the 96th minute, getting a diving flick on a Pedro Morales free-kick to beat Ricketts in the dying seconds.
With seven players away on international duty, the remaining short-squad would play to a 2-2 draw in Montreal, falling behind inside of 27 minutes to an Ignacio Piatti penalty kick and a Jack McInerney chip, only to storm back within minutes, Ribeiro and Kaka setting up each other two minutes apart.
Stoppage-time would sting again against DC, where Luis Silva's 91st minute free-kick would prove the winner, DC taking the 0-1 victory in their first visit to the Sunshine State.
Back on the road, Orlando would put in a strong effort, taking the lead in Portland on the half-hour mark through Larin, then holding firm in the face of mounting pressure, doubling their lead from the penalty spot in the 85th to clinch the victory – Kaka doing the honours – after absorbing the pressure and launching dangerous counters that eventually prompted goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey to upend Rivas for the whistle-and-point-inducing infraction.
Most recently, Orlando would suffer a heavy defeat in Columbus, falling 3-0 to the Crew; a result strongly influenced by a 34th minute red card to right-back Ramos, who literally saw red after not getting a call and taking out his frustration with a dastardly-tackle on an opponent. Fedrico Higuain had put the hosts ahead two minutes earlier, and the second half saw wave after wave of Crew attacks that culminated in Justin Meram and Kei Kamara scoring five minutes apart to seal the result on the hour.
Orlando City will be eager to put that disappointing experience behind them and equally hungry to earn their first home win in response. Toronto will be in tough to get a result in front of a rowdy and charged up expansion crowd. Expect a good match.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted shortly.