SAN JOSE, Calif. — With six games left in the season, the margin of error has tightened for Orlando City, ratcheting up the pressure for Saturday’s road match against the San Jose Earthquakes.
During the Lions’ past two road games, the team has taken one-goal lead in the second half only to cede a late goal off an error to force a draw. Against San Jose, Orlando City will be desperate to avoid a repetition of this pattern in order to secure critical points in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Lions sit two slots below the postseason cutoff with 34 points. Orlando City trails Montreal and Toronto, which are both tied with 37 points, and barely leads Chicago, which now sits only one point behind the Lions.
“It’s a big game for us, but at this stage of the season they’re all massive games,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said. “We’ve got to make sure we focus on ourselves. We want to get points on the board.”
Situated in opposite conferences, San Jose and Orlando rarely meet on the pitch, with their most recent game in April 2018. The version of the Earthquakes that will take the field on Saturday night will be unrecognizable compared to the 2018 squad when it comes to their attitude.
San Jose has become the resurgent underdog story of the season, emerging from a bottom-rung finish last season and steadily building throughout this year, peaking at a No. 3 in the Western Conference table at the start of August. Although San Jose has struggled during recent weeks, falling three slots in the standings after losing three consecutive games, the Earthquakes are a completely remodeled version of last year’s team.
That transformation has come from the leadership of head coach Matías Almeyda, who took the helm at the end of last season.
“It’s an interesting system that the players have bought into,” O’Connor said. “[Almeyda] has done a phenomenal job because he’s been able to get the buy-in from the guys. There’s a philosophy there that I think he’s been able to get a good understanding with the players about the principles the team wants to form.”
Almeyda will not be on the sideline Saturday as he serves the second match of a two-game suspension as a result of conduct during the team’s 4-0 loss to LAFC, but the Earthquakes fared well without him last week, picking up a 3-1 win over Vancouver at home. During the win over the Whitecaps, the Earthquakes set the MLS record for shots tallied in a game, firing 43 shots and placing 19 of them on target.
The record reflects San Jose’s high-octane attacking focus this season. The Earthquakes have scored 45 goals this season, the second-most in the Western Conference only behind LAFC, which has scorched the league with 74 goals. This offensive assault has been led by the MLS all-time leading goal-scorer Chris Wondolowski, who has netted 11 goals.
“They bring a lot of work rate and good movement off the ball,” Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele said. “Someone like [Wondolowski], there’s a reason he’s the leading goal scorer of all time, because his movement off the ball is unbelievable. If he is on the field, it’s going to be important to make sure we’re always turned on, always in tune with his movement.”
The attacking threat from San Jose builds from the back, with both full backs pressing high up the field. The Earthquakes will rifle off shots from long range and pack into the box for free kicks and corner kicks, taking every opportunity to pummel the backline.
Although Orlando City will need to remain defensively alert against the San Jose attack, the Lions will also be eager to jumpstart their offense after struggling to find the net in recent weeks. Orlando City carried a weight of disappointment out of last Friday’s loss to Atlanta after taking 22 shots and placing none of them in the net.
Finishing chances has been a constant conversation throughout the summer for Orlando City. Now, strikers are working to ensure the Lions don’t place too much pressure on themselves in the scoring third.
“We know we have to do a better job of finishing those chances,” Benji Michel said. “We spoke about how to focus more on putting it away and hitting the target. It’s just the little things. It’s just being concentrated in that final half second.”
Orlando City vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 10:30
Where: Avaya Stadium
Watch: WRBW-Channel 65, Youtube TV, ESPN+
The Buzz: Orlando City fell 1-0 at home against Atlanta United last Friday. … San Jose topped the Vancouver Whitecaps during a home victory Saturday. … Nani and Tesho Akindele are tied for the Lions’ lead in scoring with nine apiece. Nani also paces Orlando City with eight assists. … Forward Chris Wondolowski leads the Earthquakes with 11 goals, while forward Cristian Espinoza has served up 11 assists.