ORLANDO, Fla. — With just four games left in the season, the mentality around the Orlando City team has been centrally focused on the playoffs.
While the Lions have already clinched a spot in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, they have still yet to lock down a spot within the Eastern Conference standings. Just two points separate second-place Orlando with sixth-place New England, meaning any result this weekend could change the Lions' ability to host a playoff game next month.
"This group has had maybe three months where we have been saying this often and, game by game, saying this game is like a playoff for us." Orlando Head coach Oscar Pareja said before training at Orlando Health Training Ground at Osceola Heritage Park on Tuesday. "The game in Cincinnati, against Columbus, this one derby against Miami. I like the fact that the boys are refreshed after the FIFA break, and I see the spirit of the thing going higher. I see this team competing for big things and it will be a good challenge in these four games so we can stay concentrated on our objectives."
Having and maintaining that playoff mentality has been key for the Lions' run over the last few months, ever since the end of their Leagues Cup run back in August. In their last seven matches, Orlando has gone an impressive 4-1-2, with the lone loss coming last week to NYCFC.
It's the full buy-in from the team that has helped Pareja and his staff continue to set the bar higher this season as they head into their final stretch of the season.
"We have pushed for two-and-a-half, three months towards us achieving these objectives and putting the team in the best place we can," he said. "Now we are in that spot, but we have to sustain it or even go higher. And knowing that in the playoffs, we need to be optimized to be sharp and advance.
"So, how can we do that? Well, I think one is just trying to keep it going, and second, see if we can work on the details with them and take advantage of these last four games to add points. At the same time, we can see how can we improve things."
The first of those final four comes against a CF Montreal team that is hanging on to one of the final playoff spots in the East, currently sitting one point above DC United, which is on the outside looking in.
“Montréal is fighting for that spot in the playoffs and is a rival that gave us trouble when we went to Montréal," Pareja said, "but we’ve also had good experiences against them here. We’re trying to efficiently organize the game during the week now that we’ve had a couple of days training.”
All-time, the Lions are just 3-4-2 at home against the Canadian side, with just one win coming at Exploria Stadium in the past three seasons (7:30 p.m. kickoff | *\MLS Season Pass on Apple TV (subscription required) \
Over the past two seasons, the two sides have been involved in some memorable matchups, with Orlando securing its berth in the 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs with a 2-0 win in Montreal. The next year, the teams faced off in the City Beautiful on opening day, which saw another 2-0 victory for the Lions.
"I think it's going to be a very hard-fought game," Midfielder Martin Ojeda said of Montreal. "They're a great team that has a lot of great players with which they can play the game. But I think, as we've been saying all year, what we need to focus on is on our game. We focus on what we can do to the best of our abilities that'll enhance our game as we've done in the past games."
Odds and ends
- Defender Antônio Carlos has returned to training after dealing with a lower leg injury the past month and a half. He's been slowly working his way back into training and is officially questionable heading into Saturday's match.
Don't miss Kickoff -60, airing one hour before Orlando City's match, exclusively on the LionNation App. Join host Gabrielle Amado and Orlando City’s English-language radio talents Evan Weston and Paul Shaw as they break down the upcoming match, with special guests appearing regularly throughout the season.
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