HTIOT: Orlando is on pace to break the MLS record for goals allowed in a single season. What do you think has been the biggest reason for that?
TML: A lack of cohesion on the back line is one of the biggest contributors. Between both Jason Kreis and James O’Connor, there has hardly been any stability in personnel on the defensive end. Projected starters Jonathan Spector, Lamine Sane, and Scott Sutter have all been injured for long stretches this season. Amro Tarek looked like a great addition to start the year but his excellent form led to him missing time with call-ups for Egypt and he has yet to get back to the same level he was at during Orlando’s lone winning streak. New additions Shane O’Neill and Carlos Ascues have bolstered the numbers and put in positive shifts but have added to the variety on the back line. O’Connor has been tinkering recently as well, which has only added to it.
The midfield has also struggled with poor turnovers all year, which has often put the defenders in terrible situations. It’s hard to be effective defensively when you’re constantly on the back heel and attackers are running at you at pace. Couple that with multiple mental miscues and you have the Orlando City defense in 2018.
HTIOT: How do you feel James O’Conner has been doing since taking the head coaching job? Do you have faith that he’s the right man for the future?
TML: O’Connor has done a lot of things well since he arrived but it hasn’t resulted in a change in results. The team is scoring more goals per game under the Irishman and there is seemingly better organization in the back, though the Lions are still allowing too many goals. He came in at a rough point in the season that was always going to be difficult to salvage and at this point it’s impossible to tell if he’s got a long-term future in Orlando. There are obvious problems with City but whether it’s personnel, tactics, or something else entirely is difficult to say. It will take some time to get an idea of the direction O’Connor is taking the club and longer to discern if it’s the right one.
HTIOT: What are some differences in the Orlando team that will face the Fire on Sunday to the side that lost to Chicago 2-1 earlier in the season?
TML: The Justin Meram saga finally ended with the winger being sent back to the Columbus Crew and the Lions decided not to replace him with another attacker. Peruvian international Carlos Ascues has been a solid addition to the side and can fill in in midfield or on the back line, though City has said he’ll predominantly be a central defender. Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter have returned from the lengthy injury spells they were still suffering from the last time these teams met. O’Connor has kept the formation the same but has the midfield dropping a bit deeper when the opposition is in possession and tries more to hit on the counter.
HTIOT: Cam Lindley joined Orlando from Chicago in the offseason. How’s his first season with the club been?
TML: Cam was thrown into the fire early on as a holding midfielder under Kreis. Injuries to the players in front of him gave him an opportunity to start three of the first four matches of the year and he made some rookie mistakes and some bad turnovers that led to goals but showed a lot of promise and wasn’t too far out of his depth. He was pushed down the depth chart as Oriol Rosell and Cristian Higuita got healthy and spent some time out on loan at Saint Louis FC. O’Connor has been giving more playing time to youngsters but Lindley has been dealing with an infection and just recently rejoined training. We should see more of him as the season draws to a close.
HTIOT: Score prediction for Sunday? Also, which team do you feel will end up in last place in the East at the end of the year, and why?
TML: Orlando has been allowing a ton of goals but also scoring them at a good clip. With Yoshimar Yotun back in the fold, the team is all the more dangerous. I’m predicting a 2-2 result this weekend.
I think it will be a close race to the bottom. These teams have combined for just one win since the start of July, after all. But that win belongs to Orlando, whose form has been only ever so slightly better. Chicago’s run in is also brutal, so I think the Fire will edge the Lions for last but only just.
TML: After finishing third in the East in 2017, Chicago has looked more like its 2014-2016 versions this season that finished near the bottom. Was last year an anomaly or has something gone terribly wrong this year?
HTIOT: The Fire should have absolutely built upon a hugely successful 2017 season, but the front office has let fans down every step of the way this year. It started with management failing to bring in the necessary signings in the offseason, putting the Fire behind the eight ball before the first match even kicked off. Then came the unreasonably harsh decision to revoke the privileges and ban supporters group Sector Latino. This lead to Section 8, the other main supporters group, protesting until the decision is reversed. Without both groups, the games have no atmosphere. The off the field issues have definitely affected the players on the field, who play with no hope or belief in their own abilities. Some blame does go to head coach Paunovic, who has made some really mind boggling decisions throughout the year, and isn’t able to get the best out of his players. However, at the end of the day, the front office is responsible for the team being so poor this season.
TML: Aleksandar Katai has had quite the impact for the Fire and Nemanja Nikolic has a respectable 12 goals, but Chicago is still tied for second-to-last in goals for in the East. What’s holding the attack back?
HTIOT: Those two have been superb this season, but they are not getting any real help. There’s no third man in the attack to open up space for Nikolic and Katai. Some thought Luis Solignac could be the final piece of the puzzle, but he’s had injury problems all year, and never really got going. The midfield is quite defensive as well, so there’s never a late run coming into the penalty area from deep. Bastian Schweinsteiger is the most creative player on the pitch, but he’s been stuck playing centerback. There is some hope, as new signing Raheem Edwards has shown promises in his first couple of games for the club.
TML: Chicago and Orlando are in the same position with playoffs highly unlikely. Has this altered how Paunovic is approaching matches?
HTIOT: Ever since realizing that the playoffs are out of reasonable reach, Paunovic has begun to experiment with the starting XI. Since the results don’t matter too much, he’s been giving certain players a chance in the team. Youngster Stefan Cleveland has started the past few games, and it’s been nice to see him get some legit gametime. It does seem like Paunovic is just waiting for the year to be over, as his contract expires at the end of the season, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll choose to resign.
TML: What injuries/suspensions will keep players out this weekend and what is your projected lineup and predicted final score?
HTIOT: Since the Fire have been out of action for so long, any players who were dealing with injuries should be able to return to the side. There’s a chance Patrick McClain will be able to start in goal for the first time in months, while homegrown signing Grant Lillard should finally be able to put his injury problems behind him. The only key player who will be out is starting right back Matt Polster, who has pretty much missed the entire season with a MCL tear. I’ve not got much of an idea of the expected starting XI, but I’d assume Pauno will stick with the 3-4-3 he’s been using in recent matches.
From right to left: McLain- Kappelhof-Schweinsteiger-Lillard-Hasler-McCarty-Bronico-Vincent-De Leeuw-Nikolic-Katai
[Editor’s note: Patrick McLain is still injured and unavailable for selection. Adnan says to swap out McLain for Cleveland. -JBG]
In terms of a match prediction, the only thing I can guarantee is goals. Both teams have shambolic defenses and decent enough attacks, which should lead to a high scoring contest. This season has been a nightmare for the Fire, and I don’t expect much to change. Orlando wins 4-3 with a late goal.