NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Lions are Eastern Conference Semifinals bound.
Orlando City SC backed up its home performance a week ago with a very similar outing, a 1-0 win against Nashville SC, this time on the road in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.
It was an early start that helped Orlando on its way to an impressive defensive performance, once again showing the good form that the Lions team has been in these last few weeks.
Here are some takeaways from Tuesday night's Round One series-clinching match:
The early strike
It was the perfect way to start the game. Orlando scored just six minutes into its away fixture and rode that 1-0 lead all the way to the end of the game.
But that start was almost by design for the Lions, who wanted to come out of the gate early in the match and force some mistakes from the Nashville backline, which is exactly what Ivan Angulo was able to do. After a miscue in the back by Nashville midfielder (and Orlando native) Dax McCarty, the Colombian winger got the ball in a pocket of space inside the Nashville 18-yard box, danced around and managed to get a shot away, deflecting off McCarty's leg and in.
"We came out with the intention to run and to really press them high and try to pin them back," Angulo said after the match. "So I just kind of pressed into that area between the center backs and the holding midfielders that I really like to get in between and forced them to make a bad pass. Thankfully, I was able to take the ball off their foot and find myself in a nice spot in their box and just figured I would have a hit and see where it goes and thankfully it went into the back of the net.”
“It was a good opening to the game, obviously something we desire, especially when you go away," Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the game. "We were waiting for a reaction from Nashville, and surely, they were going to give us the spaces in the back, which we could have probably been more lethal there, but opening the game with a goal that early was very important for us.”
Grit and grind (part 2)
Scoring early on the road means being solid defensively the rest of the way.
If this Lions team has proven anything this year, it's that they are just that kind of team. Over a third of their games this year have ended in a shutout (13 of their 36 games thus far), which speaks to the talent defensively this team has shown.
This match alone saw the Lions backline win nine of their 16 tackles, get 23 clearances and hold Nashville to just 0.41 in expected goals.
Rodrigo Schlegel alone led the team in clearances with 11, constantly coming up with a big boot downfield to break up a promising attack for the home side.
While there were some nervy moments in the match, the defense once again stood tall for 85-plus minutes, getting the Lions into the next round.
When Oscar Pareja was first hired back in December of 2019, there was an innocuous quote that he said during his first day on the job about how he looked forward to a lot of 1-0 victories with the team.
Flash forward to 2023, and his Lions team posted two of those results back-to-back to advance in the MLS Cup Playoffs.
It's no fluke that this team has been able to get those results - it's by design. Fans have even nicknamed it the "Papi special" with many of the team's games over the last few seasons ending in that famous scoreline.
Regardless of the how or the beauty of it, this season, those kind of games have led this team to a single-season club record in wins, points and now, playoff wins.
It's also a massive boon for the Lions to have a wealth of experience in those types of matches that often come about in a playoff scenario. Teams in the postseason play differently. They'll play cagier, a bit more cautious and look to hold on to slim leads. The Lions have that experience in spades over the last few years under Pareja.
This means that this Orlando City team was built for just these kinds of moments, and they're just getting started.
Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoff vs Columbus Crew
Our Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoff tickets for our Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup against the Columbus Crew, presented by Publix, on Nov. 25 at 5:30 p.m. ET are live!