With more than two weeks of waiting nearing its end, Orlando City is as ready as it will ever be to open its Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs run against Nashville SC this Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET, FS1/FOX Deportes).
“We’re aiming for the big prize,” said Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja of the team’s ambitions this month. “I know we have some challenges in front of us, with Nashville being the first, but I see the playoffs...very focused on accomplishing that objective.”
It was a challenging season on many fronts for the Lions. Along with the condensed regular-season schedule and other limitations brought by the pandemic that every team in MLS faced, Orlando dealt with an abnormal series of injuries to key players throughout the season. The Lions also hit a snag in September, losing four straight before turning things around with a 3-1-4 stretch that saw them qualify for the postseason with a terrific Decision Day win in Montréal.
“We’ve overcome many challenges this year,” said Pareja. “When you see the whole picture, I think overall we are proud and I think we have a team to compete with anyone in the league.”
Now the attention turns to Nashville SC, a team that has crafted its identity around stingy defense being nigh-impossible to beat, even if they aren’t necessarily winning. Nashville tied a league record with 18 draws this year, including three against Orlando, and conceded the fewest goals in MLS this season.
“We know it’s a good team,” said Orlando City captain Nani. “We know they have good players. We are playing away from home, which makes it difficult for us as well, but this is a playoff game. We are in that mode, we know any game is a final for us and we have to do our best...we just need to trust in ourselves.”
That trust in themselves extends down to the Lions’ core identity on the pitch, as a team that wants to control the run of play. But as Nani mentioned, Orlando will be on the road for this match, traditionally a situation in this league where teams tend to be cautious and attempt to “smash and grab” by defending in numbers and taking the chances afforded to counter-attack.
Pareja, though, doesn’t think he can change his approach now after two years of preaching the same principles: “I cannot come right at the end and tell the players differently. I think they wouldn’t accept that. They hear all the time, ‘we’re going to be ourselves, we know who we are, we’re going to be protagonists, we have to go look for those three points,’ every game, it’s the same. Now we have to go to Nashville with that same mentality.”
Orlando and Nashville, as noted, have played each other close this year. The teams tied twice at Nissan Stadium in August and September, respectively, before drawing again at Exploria Stadium on Halloween after a controversial Video Review decision ruled out what looked like Andrés Perea’s stoppage-time winner. Pareja has not forgotten how that felt.
“I still have that in my heart,” he said of the Halloween game. “We felt very hurt. It was an injustice.”
“We’re going to Nashville because we want to win, and they have to beat us...if they want to continue. We’re representing this city, we’re representing this Club, and the players know that, too.”