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Complete preview for MLS week 30: Orlando’s tactical questions and more

Taking an in-depth look at Orlando City’s tactical situation and more previewing week 30.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City played to a 0-0 draw against Toronto FC in their mid-week game. This means that they have dropped to eighth in the Eastern Conference and now sit five points behind sixth-place D.C. United, who beat Columbus on Wednesday. They’ve got plenty of work to do.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re going to talk about the intriguing, back-and-forth tactical battles that took place between Jason Kreis and Greg Vanney at BMO Field that night.

Orlando went with a 4-4-2 formation, a big change coming from a team that has stuck with a 4-2-3-1 all year. Here’s what it mostly looked like:

football formations

You can call it a diamond, or you can call it a 4-1-3-2, like the USMNT often play. Whatever you want to call it, it relied primarily on the ability of Servando Carrasco to hold his own as a lone defensive midfielder and Kevin Molino and Brek Shea to track back defensively.

My main concern when I first saw this lineup on the Fox Sports 1 screen was exactly that; Carrasco is not good enough to cancel out TFC’s numbers advantage in his area of the field, and the front five is not particularly adept at providing the defensive help needed in this shape. Kreis was obviously thinking the same thing, and came up with a way to combat this weakness.

His plan was to drop the wingers Molino and Shea deep and narrow when OCSC didn’t have possession and transform the formation to something like a 4-3-1-2. Since Molino and Shea are actual wingers — not shuttlers (which are essentially center midfielders) like TFC use in their diamond — they struggled in a deeper, more central role.

Here’s what that shape looked like:

No. 1 is Molino, 2 is Carrasco, and 3 is Shea. Rivas and Larin are connected by the longer purple line, while Kaka is higher up the field. He normally played underneath the strikers, but happened to be pressing Michael Bradley in this image.

Notice the huge red circle on the near side. That’s the kind of space they often gave up, and here, Jozy Altidore recognized it and stepped into it. The resulting play is a perfect illustration of the formation’s problems:

Altidore receives the ball in that space, makes a clever pass, and all of Orlando breaks down in an instant. Their defensive lines go away and TFC find acres of room to work with in the final third.

It’s clear that not only did Molino and Shea struggle in more central roles, but they weren’t given much of a chance to succeed by Kreis in the first place, as they were played way too narrowly, and got killed as a result by TFC.

Kreis realized the problem and subbed in defensive midfielder Cristian Higuita for Rivas in just the 38th-minute, much to the dismay of poor Rivas, who had done nothing wrong and was simply sacrificed. Orlando ended up back in a 4-2-3-1 and everything was back to normal, including Molino’s license to roam in the attacking half.

They survived for the half and then secured themselves defensively for the second half, which saw TFC go down to ten men and both teams content to steal a point.

Can the 4-4-2 work for Orlando in the future? Probably not. Rivas and Larin have infinite potential as a forward partnership, but the values of starting them up top are offset by weaknesses in other places.

Clearly, they can’t start Kaka in central midfield because that would isolate one defensive mid and create the problems above. They could shift him to the wing, which many teams do with their top creator in the 4-4-2, but not playing your best player in his best spot is a recipe for disaster.

In addition, this team isn’t organized or compact enough to effectively play just two in midfield, as they already have trouble with closing down passing lanes and gaining space in the channels.

Right now, I don’t think a 4-4-2 can really work for Orlando City, unless Kreis has some other tactical wrinkle up his sleeve. His first one didn’t work, though.

Other notes:

— I got Houston over NYCFC tonight. The Dynamo have won two straight games — something unprecedented this season for them — but their compact defensive shape and tendency to play extremely narrow and sit deep will be problematic for an NYCFC side that relies on possession and their ability to move the ball quickly in central midfield. The small size of the Yankee Stadium field won’t help the Light Blues’ cause.

Also of note here: Frank Lampard’s out, and so is Steven Mendoza, so we’ll likely get a glimpse of Tommy McNamara in midfield. It’ll be interesting to see how well he moves the ball in a deeper and more possession-oriented spot. Khiry Shelton is one to look out for, as he will probably play on the wing with McNamara moved central.

— Philadelphia can clinch a berth in the playoffs on Saturday through a ton of different NFL-type complicated scenarios:

  • Philadelphia Union win vs. New York Red Bulls on Saturday AND
  • New England Revolution tie or lose vs. Sporting Kansas City on Saturday


  • Philadelphia Union win vs. New York Red Bulls on Saturday AND
  • Montreal Impact lose or tie vs. Orlando City SC on Saturday


  • Philadelphia Union tie vs. New York Red Bulls on Saturday AND
  • New England Revolution lose vs. Sporting Kansas City on Saturday AND
  • Orlando City SC tie or lose vs. Montreal Impact on Sunday AND
  • Columbus Crew SC tie or lose vs. Chicago Fire on Saturday


  • Philadelphia Union tie vs. New York Red Bulls on Saturday AND
  • New England Revolution lose vs. Sporting Kansas City on Saturday AND
  • Columbus Crew SC tie or lose vs. Chicago Fire on Saturday AND D.C. United lose vs. Toronto FC on Saturday

Tranquillo Barnetta will be moving on in the offseason, meaning that Philly will need someone new to play in attacking midfield. I sincerely hope that player is Alejandro Bedoya.

— The two worst teams in the Eastern Conference play on Saturday, with Columbus all but eliminated from playoff contention after a dispiriting loss in D.C. in midweek.

Continue to watch Luis Solignac’s performance for the Fire. He’s been a consistent starter of late, and Chicago need to figure out whether he is a starting-caliber player in this league. So far, I think he’s been good.

— Game of the week is in Frisco between FCD and the LA Galaxy. How it does not make national TV but Seattle-Vancouver does is beyond me.

Neither LA nor Dallas need much explaining.

— Real Salt Lake need to get back on track, and that path starts at Avaya this week. They’re in San Jose on Saturday having dropped to fourth in the West.

Colorado and Portland also face off, with the Rapids needing a win to remain loosely in the Supporters’ Shield race. Sporting KC play New England in another game with Western Conference postseason complications an hour and a half before Colorado-Portland.

— Didier Drogba is a hindrance to Montreal. I don’t know why, but he most certainly is. They won mid-week without him in the starting lineup, improving their record without him starting to 7-3-3.

This is just one of those things that honestly can not be rationally explained. People have tried, but I don’t think there’s an actual tactical answer to this question. I just know that it’s a problem and Mauro Biello needs to fix it, and that (should) mean dropping Drogba and giving someone like Dominic Oduro or Matteo Mancosu starts up top.

— The final game of the weekend is in Vancouver. Seattle play the Whitecaps in their first game with a playoff spot in hand all season.

Nicolas Lodeiro will be suspended due to yellow card accumulation. How will they replace his ability to crack opposing backlines and find space in behind for Jordan Morris? The answer is, they won’t. They’ll just have to be creative and work hard and hope things work out.