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Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan: Lions building proactive identity

Orlando City stands for a team photo before a soccer match against New York City FC at Orlando City Stadium. Mandatory (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City’s new style of play – one that required an offseason roster overhaul and a grueling preseason – is in full effect.

The Lions utilized a formation with three centerbacks during their season-opening draw against NYCFC and featured wingbacks in Danilo Acosta and Kyle Smith, who were heavily involved in the attack.

“We don’t want to be a team that really sits back,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “We want to be very proactive about the game, so the attacking principles become very important of just going at guys when you have a chance, putting crosses, getting guys in the box and trying to get runners in behind.”

Kljestan, Orlando City’s captain during last Saturday’s match, said the team is building an identity. The Lions (0-0-1, 1 point) take on the Chicago Fire (0-1-0, 0 points) at 1 p.m. Eastern on Saturday at SeatGeek Stadium.

“I think it took a minute for all of us to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Kljestan said. “Not often in soccer do you see a lot of teams just saying, ‘OK. We’re OK going 1-v-1 at the back, because we trust our defenders.’ That’s a lot to ask for maybe a guy like Kamal Miller, who is getting his first game ever, but he stood up and was a very good defender on the day.

“I think Shane [O’Neill’s] best quality is being a 1-v-1 guy and getting tight against guys and not letting them turn and not letting them dribble at him. It fits with some of our guys and we had some tough games in preseason where we went after it and we lost, but that was a good learning process.

“I think, yeah, I think going forward, you’ll see us trying to take some risks and playing higher up the field to try to be a little bit more proactive.”

Whether that aggressive style travels with Orlando City to Bridgeview remains to be seen. 

“You want to always stick with the same game plan because that kind of builds your identity and you stick with it, but playing on the road is always harder than playing at home,” Kljestan said. “You don’t have the friendly confines of what you’re used to. Then you get the crowd into it and then you get momentum swings and things like that, so we have to be smart about maybe not creating too much risk at the back in an away game. 

He added, “We’ll see. Any way we can try to get points early in the season, we’re going to see how it happens.” 

Coach James O’Connor didn’t give away anything regarding his strategic plans for Saturday – which is normal for O’Connor. Some players, including star striker Dom Dwyer and newly signed winger Nani, are still getting up to 90-minute fitness.  

“We’ll just have to see,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “We’ll have to see, and I’m sure Chicago will be paying attention. Look, we’ll see. Again, for our personnel, we’re still trying to figure exactly who’s going to be right. Obviously, looking at the weather, the temperature. There’s a few factors we need to be mindful of this weekend.”

The weather in Saturday’s match will be a far-cry from the Saturday afternoon forecast in Orlando, which calls for some clouds and temperatures in the low 80s. It’ll be sub-40 degrees and likely raining at SeatGeek Stadium by the time Orlando City’s match against the Fire kicks off.

O’Connor and Kljestan said the Lions need to be sharper in the final third. The Lions took 13 shots against NYCFC, four of which were on target. 

“I think we had some lovely passages of possession,” O’Connor said. “I think we got ourselves into some great positions and then, I think, maybe just that … decision, the final decision about where to execute. There’s been some great clips that we’ll be able to show the guys, so I would say that’ll be the biggest thing that we’ll be trying to implement this week in training.”

Kljestan agreed with his coach.

“If we can get the first goal, the game changes totally,” Kljestan said. “Even if we get to 1-1 right away, then game changes totally.”

The veteran midfielder isn’t too interested in more comebacks.

“We went through this last year, too,”  Kljestan said. “We were able to come back from games early in the season, but I always said you don’t want to be giving up the first goal every time because the season can become very long and very hard that way, so hopefully we get the first goal.”

The Fire lost their season opener 2-1 to the LA Galaxy.

“We’ve got to put their back line, I think, under pressure, to try to play the game up in their half,” Kljestan said. “We know it’s going to be a little bit [of a] different type of game. It should be cold there. Obviously, when you play on the road things always seem to be more difficult than playing at home. Then, obviously, their home opener, so they’ll be excited to play in front of their fans.”

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