To say Friday’s Quarterfinal match was dramatic would be an understatement.
Trailing seconds before second-half stoppage time, Orlando City defender João Moutinho got his head on a corner kick from Nani to level the Lions against Western Conference heavyweights LAFC.
That finish forced the two sides into a penalty shootout, where City punched its ticket to the Semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament, their captain hitting the strike to seal the victory.
Throughout the entirety of the fixture, the Lions looked to be the better side on the pitch, out-possessing and out-shooting an LAFC side whose mantra is based on the manner in which they control games with their high press.
In the first half, the Lions had a few good chances but were unable to get on the board, forcing LAFC goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer into three saves. On the other side of the ball, City’s defense held LAFC shotless in the first 45, the first time in franchise history the 2018 expansion side was unable to get a shot off in a half.
Then came the second half, where City’s best chance came off a penalty attempt from Nani in the 57th minute, whose shot was saved by Vermeer. Three minutes later, LAFC took the lead.
In the following minutes LAFC continued with their high press, requiring Lions’ goalkeeper Pedro Gallese to make four key saves to keep the advantage to one, but we never saw the mentality waver for the men in purple.
“We are very proud of the group of players who have done an excellent job and stayed in the game. That needed a lot of heart and desire and determination and I think they accomplished that in those 90-plus minutes,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said of the effort.
“The game rewarded them because they were the best team on the field. They were patient in the difficult moments and I want to highlight that, that’s the heart of the team and the Club.”
That reward came with Moutinho’s 90th minute finish, followed by redemption for Nani from the penalty spot to seal the victory for the Lions in the shootout.
To those outside the City camp, it was a shocking victory by the underdogs. For Pareja and his group of players however, it was just another deserved victory after a confident and complete performance.
While some managers opt to use the underdog narrative as bulletin board material, Pareja prefers to utilize other motivating factors by working to enhance the identity of the Club and confidence of his players.
“Probably that’s a good tool to use, [but] our players don’t need it. They know where they’re going and I’m very sure that they know who they are and that’s what is important,” Pareja said of being deemed the underdogs.
“What others think about them is irrelevant at this moment because we are in our building mode. They're going and moving forward. Obviously in soccer there’s many people who want to say things and if we’re not the favorites to win, well then we accept that. It’s normal, but we will continue to improve and one day we will be.”
The mentality that Pareja has worked to instill in this group has been on full display throughout the tournament, with Friday’s victory no exception. It’s one characterized by an unrelenting desire while stamping the Club’s identity onto each and every contest, something the side has undoubtedly been successful in doing thus far.
“We kept fighting, our team was amazing. Every player who was on the field, it was fantastic, the determination, the quality of football we put on the field, the courage, the desire to win,” Nani said of the group’s performance. “I think at the end we scored a goal because of everything we put on the field and on the penalty kicks we put more concentration, we put more determination and the best team won the game. I’m so proud of this team and I’m so happy and I will continue to fight for this Club and all of the team as well.”