Orlando City hosts Philadelphia Union in race for Eastern Conference table

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A top spot in the Eastern Conference table will be on the line when Orlando City hosts the Philadelphia Union tonight.

The Lions (6-3-4, 22) and the Union (6-3-5, 23) have been jockeying for the second spot behind the New England Revolution all season, continuing a race for the conference that began last year at the start of coach Oscar Pareja’s tenure in Orlando.

When the teams face tonight, they’ll once again compete for a top place in the conference and the league.

“They are fighting with us in that position with the same points,” Pareja said. “For us, it’s the same commitment, the same responsibility. We are eager to come back to our place and get points and keep fighting for the highest spots in the conference.”

For several weeks, Pareja’s main focus has been recovering key starters from injuries and international absences.

Both sides will be without key threats — Orlando’s star striker Daryl Dike will face off against Philadelphia’s leading goal-scorer Corey Burke and starting keeper Andre Blake on Sunday in the Concacaf Gold Cup, eliminating them from the available lineup on Thursday.

The team returned Pedro Gallese and Sebas Méndez from the Copa América last week, only to have Méndez suffer an injury in the opening 15 minutes of play, forcing him to the sideline.

Pareja said the injury was not as severe as it seemed during the Toronto match, resulting in a deep bruise rather than a break or fracture. Méndez could return as early as tonight’s match, one piece of a larger trend of players returning to health.

Defenders Antonio Carlos and Ruan both could make a return this week as well as striker Pato. Winger Chris Mueller also has recovered after playing through a knock for the last three weeks.

Outside back João Moutinho also started against Toronto last week, making his return after several weeks sidelined with an undisclosed lower-body injury. After being in and out of the rotation all year, Moutinho said he feels more confident than ever in his health.

“I feel the best I’ve ever felt this season,” Moutinho said.

Moutinho will be key to the Lions’ ability to counter Philadelphia’s condensed central shape.

Pareja faced Union coach Jim Curtin once since joining Orlando — a 1-1 draw in the MLS is Back tournament that ultimately allowed the Lions to clinch their group in the opening stage of the competition.

The two coaches’ styles complement and challenge each other uniquely. Philadelphia crunches most of its movement through the gut of the field, forgoing wingers to play with a formation of four midfielders that Pareja describes as a “rhombus.”

This will bring the action straight at the centerbacks and defensive midfielders such as Júnior Urso. But it will also leave more space along the flanks for the Lions, whose formation emphasizes wingers and fullbacks to stretch teams wide.

Both sides will attempt to hit each other in the opposite area of the field, giving outside backs such as Moutinho and wingers Mueller, Nani and Benji Michel more room to express themselves on the pitch.

“They have a lot of players in the midfield, and they really overflow that area of the field,” Moutinho said. “I think we’re gonna have some spaces out wide, and hopefully, our wingers and our fullbacks will be able to make a difference going forward.”

The Lions have been studying Philadelphia’s distinct formation throughout the week, particularly analyzing how to shut down top attackers such as Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos. But Pareja said his team is also focused on setting the tempo and style of every match they play at home, including tonight’s game.

After dropping only a single home loss so far this season, Pareja said the team is eager to deliver a home win to fully break out of the Lions’ three-game winless skid.

“I like to analyze the rival and give information to the players about them, but it’s very important for us that we understand that they need to be worried about our team too,” Pareja said. “We have many things that we have done well. We have to magnify also what the boys have done and let them worry about our ideas and our model.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Julia Poe at jpoe@orlandosentinel.com.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting