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Orlando City confident entering hostile road matchup with improving Portland Timbers

After picking up two wins at home, the Lions will take on a Timbers team on a four-game unbeaten streak

Orlando City SC midfielder Sacha Kljestan, right, said the Lions are working to build on their recent positive momentum on the road against the Portland Timbers. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — After a rare stretch of recovery time, Orlando City hit the road to take on the Portland Timbers on Thursday in a Western Conference faceoff.

The game comes at a crucial time for the Lions, who sit only one point away from  playoffs contention in the gut of the season. Fresh off a pair of invigorating home wins — including the 1-1 penalty-kick thriller in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals — the team is looking to capitalize on its momentum to earn crucial points on the road.

“I think the level of commitment the players have shown over the last few weeks has been outstanding,” Lions coach James O’Connor said. “We need to continue that and make sure it’s the same level of performance that it’s been.”

Last Saturday’s game against Columbus capped a brutal week of play for the team, as it logged more than 300 minutes of play in three games during a span of seven days. The workload meant that a variety of players saw the pitch for the team, including rookies Santiago Patiño, Benji Michel and Kamal Miller, but the Lions secured two wins and a draw on the road during the stretch.

The team faces a similar situation this week, playing in Portland on Thursday and then returning home for another game on Sunday. But at this point, defender Robin Jansson said the Lions are becoming well-versed in recovery and rotation in order to succeed during quick turnarounds.

“I think we’re feeling quite good actually,” Jansson said. “We have tired bodies here and there, but that’s normal when you play a lot of games in a small amount of days. We’re feeling that we’re in a good mood and that we need to transition that into a good energy on the field.”

The team will be looking to bring that energy to play against Portland on Thursday against a team that is enjoying its own surge of momentum. The Timbers struggled early in the season.

The team is now riding a four-game unbeaten streak, highlighted by a 1-0 upset victory over LAFC at Banc of California Stadium last week. With a wealth of home games during the second half of their season, the Timbers will look to build off of their home-field advantage, which is one of the strongest in MLS.

The Timbers’ greatest attacking threat is midfielder Diego Valeri, who leads the team with five goals and 10 assists. As lethal off the ball as he is when it’s at his feet, Valeri has powered the team on the offensive side of the ball as the Timbers’ attack has come to life during the course of the summer. With two four-goal blowouts in the past month — including a 4-0 rout of the LA Galaxy in the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup — Portland has come into offensive form.

“It’s a big one for us,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “They probably circled this game as a very important game for them coming off a home tie over the weekend. It’s a big game for us, and there will be a lot of pressure from both sides.”

As Orlando City nears the middle of the summer, the mood of the players is drastically different than it was at the same time last season. Recalling  last year, Kljestan said this season feels more in control for the Lions. Orlando City has continued to hover in this position just below the playoffs cutoff for several weeks now, always remaining just a point or two below the mark.

To Kljestan, this makes the pressure of games like Thursday’s that much higher.

“At this point last year, we were starting to fall off way too hard,” Kljestan said. “Too many losses piling up, mentality getting worse, obviously confidence dropping a lot. Right now, I think we’re in a really good spot. Having said that, we’re still below the playoff line. Going into Portland, we know it’s another good chance for us to keep things rolling.”

Scouting report

Orlando City vs. Portland Timbers, 10

Where: Providence Park

Watch: ESPN

The Buzz: Orlando City defeated the Columbus Crew 1-0 on Saturday. … Rookie Benji Miller netted his first goal in MLS play in the 84th minute to lift the team to the win. … The Timbers battled to a 2-2 finish against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday. … After the Rapids ceded an own goal, Diego Valeri scored a penalty kick for the team’s second goal. … Timbers defender Julia Cascante and Lions striker Dom Dwyer will be serving red card suspensions during the game. …  Orlando City is led by star designated player Nani, who paces the team in goals (8) and assists (7)… Forward Brian Fernandez leads Portland with six goals while Diego Valeri has 10 assists, the second most in MLS.

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