It may have taken a little while, but Orlando City is set to make their debut in the MLS Playoffs, hosting New York City FC in the Eastern Conference first round.
While it’s hard to draw a conclusion about New York City FC’s 2020 season given the circumstances of COVID-19, the resulting condensed schedule and the abundance of injuries that followed, a first-round win in the MLS Playoffs over Orlando City would give Head Coach Ronny Deila a promising accomplishment in his first term with the club.
This battle of the 2015 expansion sides is a fitting way for Orlando City to make their debut in the MLS playoffs. Both teams had similar first seasons in the league but have been on opposite sides of the Eastern Conference table since. Key signings and the hire of Oscar Pareja flipped the switch for the Lions in 2020, earning them a home game in the first round.
There are great matchups in the first round of the MLS Playoffs, however, NYCFC vs Orlando stands out as one that can go either way. Orlando seems to have NYCFC figured out, avoiding defeat in their last five meetings, however, the visitors have shown their ability to fight for a result as of late, even if it results in a nine-goal finish.
These two sides faced off twice in 2020, both in Orlando. In the MLS is Back group stage, Orlando earned a 3-1 win with the help of a Chris Mueller brace. Mueller scored again when NYCFC visited Exploria Stadium in October, but a response from Keaton Parks saw the game finish level.
Player to Watch
The absence of Heber (Injury) and the departure of Alexandru Mitrita (Transfer) left NYCFC limited in productive attacking options in a season with a compact schedule. It took time, but forward Valentín Castellanos begun fitting into the role of striker, finding his stride as the 2020 regular season concluded.
The 22-year-old forward is consistently the most energetic player on the field for NYCFC but this often results in more fouls than goals. Castellanos, to the credit of Head Coach Ronny Delia, has been better at controlling his energy in the team’s wins over the New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire.
In the final two games of the season, Castellanos played a part in six of NYCFC’s nine goals, scoring four himself.
Similar to Castellanos, Orlando City’s Daryl Dike capitalized on an opening at the striker position as well. Dom Dwyer’s season-ending injury during the MLS is Back tournament saw Dike move up in the depth chart, eventually taking the starting role from Tesho Akindele.
Picked fifth in the 2020 SuperDraft, Dike made his debut in August against Inter Miami. The former University of Virginia striker tallied three goals and three assists in his first five starts, giving head coach Oscar Pareja no reason to drop him.
The 20-year-old has scored in each of his last four appearances and will be eager to do the same on Saturday.
Matchup to Watch
NYCFC ATTACK vs. BRIAN ROWE
Following the off-season signing of Peruvian international Pedro Gallese, Brian Rowe became Orlando’s #2 between the sticks. Gallese has been one of the league’s best goalkeepers in his first season, but a call up to Peru for World Cup Qualifiers will keep him out of Saturday’s match.
While it’s never the best feeling to have your backup in net in an important game like this, Rowe’s performance against NYCFC in October should relieve some stress. The 32-year-old conceded just one of the eight shots on target he faced, making second-half saves that secured his team a point.
Based on NYCFC’s last few outings, Rowe will have another busy day at the office this weekend. Lead by Castellanos, NYCFC has scored nine times in their last two games, tallying ten shots on target in both.
To say midfielders Alexander Ring and likely Keaton Parks beside him will have a busy Saturday afternoon would be an understatement. Besides having to keep a veteran like Nani under control Ring’s job will be keeping Mauricio Pereyra, the Brazilian midfielder who pulls the strings in Orlando’s attack, quiet as well.
Orlando is dangerous on the counter so Ring will have to be careful in avoiding unnecessary yellow cards. Ring doesn’t find the back of the net often but if Pareja caught the Hudson River Derby, he’d make sure his team closes the 29-year-old down.
After promising freshman and sophomore seasons in MLS, forward Chris Mueller has become a well-known threat in 2020. The American’s 10 goal four assist year is a career-high, two of them coming against NYCFC.
Mueller’s season has made Orlando a threat at both wings, often lining up on the right with Nani over on the left side. His form has taken some of the responsibility off of the former Portuguese international, the form of teammate Mauricio Pereyra has helped as well.
The MLS Playoffs are new territory for Orlando City, but not for Head Coach Oscar Pareja. The Columbian brought FC Dallas to the playoffs three out of his four seasons in Texas and was hired to do the same in Orlando. Pareja did what three other managers couldn’t and brought the Lions to the post-season.
They grabbed attention at the MLS is Back tournament, reaching the final with entertaining, must-watch soccer. In a knockout style tournament, Orlando proved they can get past sides like the Philadelphia Union, LAFC, and Minnesota United. Pareja’s side should and do feel like they can replicate in the playoffs.
“I think it’s very important to see this as an opportunity to make history,” Orlando midfielder Uri Rosell said. The 28-year-old brings useful experience to the team, winning an MLS Cup with Sporting KC in 2013.
NYCFC’s 4-3 win over the Chicago Fire might not have been their best performance, but it was one that showed their resistance to still walk away with a win. Defensive lapses were capitalized on by the Fire and the same will happen if Orlando is given the chance.
The team’s wins over the Fire and Red Bulls showed New York City’s front three finally playing at their best. Jesus Medina has been producing on a consistent basis, scoring three times and picking up three assists in his last five games. In addition to the red hot Valentin Castellanos, Gary Mackay-Steven has begun picking up form as well, scoring in back-to-back starts.
NYCFC enters Saturday afternoon with playoff experience, but for the most part, experience you’d rather forget. Their Eastern Conference topping 2019 ended in heartbreak in the conference semifinal, a round NYCFC has yet to pass in their four attempts. Saturday is Head Coach Ronny Deila’s first step at bringing NYCFC back to that stage.