ORLANDO, Fla. – Lewis Neal and Pedro Ribeiro will be called on to carry the load for Orlando City SC's successive Saturday home games with FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls, a stretch head coach Adrian Heath calls “the most important week of the season.”
Heath has targeted nothing less than six points from the matches in a bid to put his team’s playoff ambitions in overdrive.
Yet Orlando will be without their top two scorers, their leading defender and two other international midfielders, while one player who might have been able to help – Designated Player and Honduran international Bryan Rochez – has returned to the club badly out of match fitness after a visa nightmare in New Zealand following the U-20 World Cup.
It is hardly the ideal scenario for a call to arms for the MLS newcomers. But Heath insists he expects his team to go all out for two wins, starting against an in-form Dallas outfit at the raucous Citrus Bowl on Saturday (7:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
“We have a very big week coming up,” Heath said. “If we could get six points in the next two home games, that would huge for us. To my mind, that makes it the most important week of the season.”
Orlando are without Kaká, scorer of nine goals this season (one-game suspension) and Cyle Larin (six goals, on Gold Cup duty with Canada). Meanwhile, defender Aurelien Collin is not yet ready for 90 minutes after his latest hamstring strain, and midfield men Darwin Ceren (Gold Cup) and Brek Shea (groin injury) are also still absent.
That puts the versatility of Neal and Ribeiro (pictured at right) front and center against Dallas as Heath bids to juggle his meager resources and maintain the team’s current run of just one defeat in their last 10, including five unbeaten at home.
Former D.C. United man Neal has the ability to play anywhere through the midfield, while Ribeiro – who has spent most of his minutes up top this season – can also take on Kaká’s No. 10 role, if Heath opts to play Colombian Carlos Rivas as the lone striker in his preferred 4-2-3-1 lineup.
“When you’re down to the bare bones like this week, it’s vital to have some options,” Heath explained. “And, when you have a squad of 28, you want three or four who can play multiple positions.
“That means you’re looking for players like Lew and Pedro to make contributions in different ways. Brek is the same. They give you the chance to switch things around. But we also have some of the younger guys to call on this week. Harrison [Heath] will be involved at some stage and Tommy Redding is back. They’re getting closer to the starting XI, so that’s good.”
However, Heath would not tip his hand as to whether Neal or Ribeiro will fill the Kaká-shaped void in the team’s formation. “I want to sleep on it and see where we are tomorrow,” he insisted.
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Neal has shaken off a nagging Achilles problem caused by a spell of four games in 10 days in June and is ready for his ninth start of the campaign, which is more than he managed all of last year with United.
“Kaká is Kaká. None of us can try to copy what he does,” said Neal. “You just try to play to the best of your ability and do what you can for the team. This is a massive week for us, with six very big points at stake, so it’s up to everyone to contribute.”
Heath also confirmed there would be no short road back for Rochez, who got stuck alone in New Zealand for some three weeks, unable to return to the US without the necessary visa for his new passport as a U.S. State Department computer glitch added to the delay.
In the end, Rochez went back to Honduras while the problem was sorted out and finally returned to Orlando only on Wednesday this week, meaning he has missed a full month of training and any kind of soccer activities. This effectively puts him almost back to square one with the team, fitness-wise.
“Bryan is much too far away to be ready even for the bench just yet,” Heath confirmed. “We need to get a lot of work into him before he’s match fit. It could be three to four weeks.”