Sometimes I wonder if the fact that I don’t like country music has something to do with the fact that I’ve never been west of Illinois. Has the devil ever come down to Toms River? Probably not. He might be viewing the U.S. Open Cup semifinal between the New York Red Bulls and Orlando City SC, and might be interested in the tactical matchup taking place as well as intermittent thoughts about uniforms. If only there were a place he could read about both.
If you blinked you missed it, but the Red Bulls are two games away from the first silverware of the Struber era. First in line is Orlando City, currently sitting in 5th place in the Eastern Conference and 6th on points per game. Despite their current status above the playoff line, Orlando have been quite beatable lately, 1-2-2 in their last 5 and not looking nearly as fearsome or unsettling as their mascot, Kingston. Knockout tournaments can be unpredictable, but after an admittedly surprising win in Austin, with all due respect to Orlando City and Kingston (please don’t hurt me Kingston) it’s a winnable game.
Orlando got off to a hot start in 2022, 5 of their 8 wins coming in their first 10 games, but the grind has gotten to the squad as results have slowed. Offensive output has been their main problem, the 6th worst goals per 90 (1.14) and the 3rd worst xG per 90 (1.13) in the league. There’s not a particular deficiency to be seen, just a lack of creativity and moves breaking down too easily. While possessing fine individual talent such as Ercan Kara, Facundo Torres, and Pedro Gallese, head coach Oscar Pareja has been unable to get the best out of his squad.
The blessings keep raining down for the Red Bulls, with Orlando City being a largely possession based team. Pareja’s 4-2-3-1 is designed for easy transition from back to front, the squad averaging 50.8% possession and ranking higher up on many passing statistics. Their tendencies to overplay the ball mean that many of these passes aren’t productive, but the effort is certainly there. Playing out of the back is rarely a good idea against the Red Bull press, and Orlando’s opponents have had high successful pressure percentages against the Lions. I’m almost jumping with glee. Almost.
Orlando is one of the most statistically average teams around, still figuring a lot of things out but generally a solid team. One certainly can’t underestimate them, but with New York having beat them 3-0 earlier in the year, optimism may just be tolerated.
As the home team, fans should expect Orlando City to come out in their all purple home kit. The regal color has been a standard kit color for City dating back to the team’s years in the United Soccer League. In 2022, the home outfit’s main differentiating feature is a series of small bars near the chest that help break up the overall dark coloring. Orlando has only worn this kit during the competition as this will be their 5th straight home game thanks to random draws.
The Red Bulls’ kit is a bit trickier to nail down. In their last three home games the team has employed different variations of their red and white kits. Specifically, against Austin and Cincinnati the team wore white tops both times but alternated between white and red shorts. Against Kansas City, a team the Bulls might face in the USOC Final, the group went all red to counteract the light blue wizards.
Truthfully, part of me wishes New York was the home team just so Orlando had a chance to break out their 2022 Sunshine Kit. The Lions’ Community kit (remember how other team’s do those?) is a tetra color homage to the natural Florida “skyline”. The jersey’s upper white breaks into different shades of yellow and orange, creating a sunrise/sunset effect down the front of the jersey, before culminating in the team’s standard purple.
An excellent tribute to the Sunshine State that, as a kit watcher, I’m sad won’t be used on Wednesday night.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The Orlando City winger hasn’t disappointed in his first season with the club. Heading into the match the Uruguayan has the second most goals with his team, both in league (4) and overall (5). Signed as a Young Designated Player, his abilities are still developing but also challenging to combat. One of the Lion’s best ball dribbles, he can beat defenders with ease and, if that fails, his cross and scoring ability from outside of the box is top notch.
His extra time goal against Inter Miami in the Round of 16 is a great example of this. Immediately after going down, the national team player and his team responded with a goal to keep their tournament hopes alive.
(Check out this article from our friend’s at The Mane Land for more on Torres in recent weeks)
With Tom Edwards suspended after a mystery altercation in the last round, it’s once again up to the younger Nealis to take over the right flank. The former Georgetown captain has been an admirable squad piece off the bench, but he’ll likely be the starter in one of the most important games of the year for New York. Offensive output has been a trouble for him despite playing primarily as a wingback, and against the offensively oriented fullbacks that Orlando employs there will likely be space in behind for Nealis to exploit. Orlando’s flanks have been a problem for them, allowing more crosses per game than most teams in the league, so New York’s fullbacks will be integral to their offensive success.
Speaking of fullbacks, we turn to a fellow right back in Orlando’s Brazilian Ruan. Lightning quick, he performs an admirable Dani Alves impression with his bursting runs up the flank. He’s scored twice on the year and provided a single assist, and ranks in the top 10% of MLS fullbacks in touches in the attacking penalty area. His battle against likely left back John Tolkin will be one to watch, as the two look to get forward it’ll be important to see who defends who, who has to be pinned back making sure that the other doesn’t run riot. Tolkin has performed admirably against attacking fullbacks, but Ruan is The attacking fullback. It’ll be fun.
Tom Barlow and/or Luquinhas
This past weekend’s game against Austin FC saw Patryk Klimala start up top as the lone striker. In an obvious case of load management, he played most of the match before being subbed off for Tom Barlow. The fresh sub only needed four minutes on the field before what was officially the game-winning goal in the 65th minute. Luquinhas joined him off the bench in the 73rd.
It’s unclear how Struber is going to organize his offense against Orlando City. The Brazilian has been a regular up top as a lone striker, working with a tandem of Omir Fernadez behind him and Lewis Morgan on the wing. However results like the New York City FC match two weeks back might pause any continuation of that strategy.
Instead, Barlow and Luquinhas might be destined to start together on offense for the first time since the July 3rd match against Sporting Kansas City. Sure they won that game… off an Aaron Long goal. It’s not pretty and focuses less on the strikers and more on the midfielders. But against Orlando that might work.
Mike: Orlando’s weak offense might be enough to get them to a third straight MLS Cup Playoffs. However in a knockout turnamount I don’t think they have enough to win it all. Both the Lions and RBNY are going into Wednesday on short rest. But even a rotating roster of Bulls was able to take down Supporter’s Shield contender Austin FC. Expect a goal from Luquinhas and for Ercan Kara to get stuffed up. 3-1 New York.
Bonus: Parlay me a Sacramento Republic win over the inconsistent Sporting Kansas City. The Red Bulls will host a non-MLS team in the U.S. Open Cup Final, marking the first MLS vs lower division final since 2008.
Gregory: Struber came out winning even after a rotation gamble against Austin, and with key attacking players now well rested it’s hard to see an offensively stagnant Orlando with much of a chance. 2-1 New York.
Bonus: I’ll also take a Sacramento Republic win, just so the first potential trophy of the Struber era can be won in Harrison.