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Nani praises growth of Orlando City as the captain flourishes in final stretch of season

With three goals and an assist over two games, the captain says he feels that he is getting into stride in the final push for the playoffs.

Orlando City forward Nani (17) is thriving during the final games of the 2019 regular season. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

During the final stretch of Orlando City’s push for the playoffs, Nani feels he is finally up to full speed.

“I should start another season,” Nani joked after Saturday’s game against New England. “It’s not easy. To tell you the truth, I [was] not feeling fine at the beginning of the season.”

Nani entered his first season in MLS already out of breath. He had played into February during his final season with Sporting CP in Portugal, arriving in Orlando with barely any time to rest and recover before the Lions’ season started. The addition of a grueling MLS travel schedule and oppressive Florida heat further challenged the veteran.

Fatigue wasn’t entirely evident in Nani’s performance on the field — the captain notched assists in his first two games of the season, then scored five goals during a run of four games in April. But as he stares down the final three games of his first regular season with the Lions, Nani said he feels fit to play his best football in the fight for a first playoff berth.

“I’ve been working very hard to maintain my body, to be ready every weekend,” Nani said. “All these goals give you a little more motivation and a little more energy. I hope I can continue to produce some good football for the team.”

As the stakes have heightened for Orlando City, the captain’s quality of play has risen with them. Nani netted three goals and added an assist during the last two weeks, leading the team to back-to-back comeback draws to keep the Lions’ faint playoff hopes alive.

When it comes to his impact on the Orlando City attack, however, Nani’s performance goes beyond the simple statistics of goals and assists. As a winger, he doesn’t normally approach the offense with a goal-first mentality, thriving instead in an environment where he assists and attacks equally.

What the captain does best is balance head-on attacking in the box with intangibles to manage ball distribution — whipping crosses into traffic, disrupting movement in the midfield and directing players in transition runs.

On the pitch, Nani is constantly conducting traffic, pointing subtly with his hand at hip level and calling out instructions.

“You look at his quality, it’s there for everyone to see,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said after Saturday’s game. “His performance tonight was outstanding. Especially his second half, in that central area, his shot from distance, his ability to drop balls in behind. … When you have somebody who has that kind of quality, it’s great.”

Although fitness might be helping fuel Nani’s recent success, he pointed out another reason for his ability to make plays — the growth of the team surrounding him. Saturday’s game saw the Orlando City roster at close to full strength, starting Cristian Higuita and Mauricio Pereyra alongside each other for the first time.

The addition of Pereyra offers perhaps the best compliment to Nani’s playing style — an attacking midfielder whose passing accuracy can create sharp and swift offensive distribution. Higuita brings a similar balance of pace and precision, which allows the Lions to build fluidly through the midfield, then exploit gaps in the box with the team’s more clinical finishers.

This array of threats in the midfield also opens up the field for Nani to net goals of his own. When he scored the equalizing chip-in goal against LAFC, for instance, the ball came off a pass that Higuita tucked behind the opposing backline in stride with Nani’s run.

As one of the team’s designated players, the Lions will still rely on Nani to shoulder the offense and create plays on his own, such as his weaving strike to level the score for a second time on Saturday. But more support from his teammates gives Nani more room to breathe and create.

To the captain, the team’s current style of play is reflective of a wider pattern of growth.

“We are a team who is learning a lot, who is improving,” Nani said. “The club is building a strong team, a team to compare with others on the highest level. This is a club who I believe in the future will be fighting every game to win and every season to be in the playoff with the best teams. We just need to believe in all the good work we are all on this club doing.”

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