And the Lions keep on dancing.
On Thursday, Orlando City defeated Minnesota United by a score of 3-1 in the Semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament to punch its ticket to the Final of the competition, its first Finals appearance across all competitions in the MLS era.
It was a clinical performance on the attacking end for Head Coach Oscar Pareja’s Lions, scoring three goals off just seven shots in the match to Minnesota’s 17. Once again the City defense held firm, allowing just three shots on target for the Loons, the first of which didn’t come until the 75th minute of play.
While the Lions were edged just slightly in possession by the Loons, they appeared very much in control throughout the majority of the contest, replicating that same sense of confidence on the ball that we have seen throughout the competition.
Lions’ captain Luis Nani shined brightest on the night, scoring a first-half brace with goals in the 36th and 42nd minutes, respectively, to give Orlando City a two-goal lead going into the break. It marked the first multi-goal performance for the Portuguese international of the year and his second game-winner of the tournament, the first a second-half stoppage time finish in the Lions’ opener against intrastate rivals Inter Miami CF.
“It’s great to have players who take that responsibility and put the weight on their shoulders and appear in the games that mean the most for us. Regarding Luis Nani, this is what a player like him has done during his entire career,” Pareja said of his captain. “It also makes me happy to watch him play now, like a young player who wants to keep winning, who has objectives and who is always looking ahead. It’s contagious, his energy, and we respect his leadership.”
That contagious energy has been evident throughout the entirety of this run by these Lions, who many worried would be unable to reign in the emotion following their dramatic Quarterfinal win over LAFC. Despite the concern, there appeared to be no emotional hangover for the City side in Thursday’s Semifinal, yet another testament to the focus and the mentality that Pareja has instilled within the team.
Now the focus shifts to the Final on Tuesday, where the Lions will face the Portland Timbers for the opportunity to lift their first silverware in Major League Soccer. Looking at where the team was at the start of this competition in early July to now, the growth has been substantial in setting the foundation for success not just in this tournament, but for the future as well.
“I don’t think there is any secret. The players have understood the idea and the confidence that they have with that idea is tremendous. It makes our job easier. We have worked hard indeed, it has been difficult times for us, but the players just put all the excuses away and then just kept going and going,” Pareja said.
“They’re playing with confidence and they accept each other and they understand that this is a day-by-day growing path. We have created a good momentum and a good thing. We’re still in the building mode, but we’re proud."