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Orlando City chases crucial win over Sporting Kansas City

As the Lions look ahead to a pair of home games, coach James O’Connor looks to keep his team’s defensive shape streamlined.

Orlando City coach James O'Connor talks with forward Chris Mueller (9) during a match earlier this season. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City will look to continue its recent positive trend as it hosts Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday night.

The Lions have earned a win and a draw during their past two regular-season games as they make a push for a playoff berth during the final stretch of the season.

Orlando City still remains one slot below the playoff cutoff line, trailing Toronto and Montreal by three points. With only nine games left during the season, each game has become a must-win for the Lions, particularly at home.

“We need to find a way to win at home,” Orlando City defender Chris Mueller said. “I think it’s really vital at this stage of the season where we can get three points and just continue to go from there. Every game is a final, so we gotta treat it like that.”

While the team has found success on the road this season, Orlando City hasn’t fared as well in its own home stadium. Coach James O’Connor believes this stems from the team’s tendency to break out of its defensive structure to launch onto the offensive, leaving the Lions vulnerable in transition on the counterattack.

As the team prepares to face Sporting KC at 7:30 Wednesday night, O’Connor said the key to cementing success at home will come from finding attacking opportunities without losing that defensive shape.

“I think at home, we feel as if we have to open up, and we have to go and attack,” O’Connor said. “It’s always subconscious that away from home, we feel like we need to be really committed to our shape. The reality is, we should be as committed to our shape at home as well.”

After a strong start in the early weeks of the season, Sporting KC has faltered this year, stumbling at one point to the bottom rung of the Western Conference before pulling itself up to the No. 10 slot. The team mainly has struggled on the defensive end, allowing 43 goals so far, the third-worst in its conference. SKC has notched only four shutouts this season, three of which have come during the past five weeks of play.

For Orlando City, the game offers an opportunity to continue to ignite its attack. The Lions have struggled to finish on the offensive end during the past month, but they capitalized on key scoring opportunities during their past two regular-season matches. Continuing that trend will be vital for the team as it seeks out a win leading into a series of matches against top-ranked Eastern Conference opponents.

For midfielder Uri Rosell, Wednesday night brings a welcome reunion with the club that kick-started his career in MLS. Rosell played with Sporting KC for three seasons, appearing in 43 games with the club.

For Rosell, the chance to face his former team is something that he looks forward to each season. Although he noted that the team has performed below its typical line of play this season, he said his time spent with coach Peter Vermes caused him to be cautious and ensure that his team didn’t underestimate Sporting KC.

“It’s always an extra motivation for me,” Rosell said. “I’m not going to take it easy if I play. I always have a great work for them, and it’s always nice to see them again. They are a great team, and we will have to be very careful.”

Availability updates

Defender João Moutinho remains on the sidelines for Orlando City and will not be available in either game this week after suffering a hamstring injury in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Defender Ruan also suffered a hamstring injury and will not be available against Sporting KC.

Midfielder Cristian Higuita, who has missed 10 MLS games for Orlando City after suffering a hamstring injury in early June, returned to contact training with the entire team Monday.

O’Connor warned that his progress will continue slowly, noting that he suffered “a decent tear” initially.

“What we don’t want to do is put him straight in and then he gets re-injured,” O’Connor said. “We need to be professional and we need to be fair to Cristian, just give him the best chance of staying fit now.”

Scouting report

Orlando City vs. Sporting Kansas City, 7:30

Where: Exploria Stadium

Watch: WRBW-Channel 65, YouTube TV, ESPN+

The Buzz: Orlando City secured a 1-1 draw on the road against Toronto FC on Saturday. … Rookie Benji Michel came off the bench in the second half to lift the team with its sole goal in the 69th minute. … Sporting KC suffered a 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on Saturday. Johnny Russell scored to take a brief lead in the 31st minute. … The Lions are led by star designated player Nani, who has eight goals and eight assists, but the captain hasn’t scored in 11 matches. … Tesho Akindele is tied with Nani for the team lead in goals scored. … Sporting KC is led on the offensive end by midfielder Felipe Gutierrez with 10 goals, and Russell has added eight goals and five assists on the season.

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