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Orlando City embraces high stakes as Lions chase playoff bid

The Lions are well aware of the pressure heading into this weekend’s matchup with New England, but coach James O’Connor is encouraging his team to embrace and enjoy the moment.

Orlando City SC forward Tesho Akindele (13) is congratulated by forward Dom Dwyer (14), defender Kamal Miller (27) and teammates after scoring a goal earlier this season. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City players know the stakes of Saturday’s game against New England.

It comes down to simple math. With 39 points, New England holds the final ticket into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Orlando City sits two spots back with 35 points, only five points away from leap-frogging the Revolution for the club’s first postseason berth.

A win would pull the Lions within a point of the Revolution and keep their playoff hopes alive. Coach James O’Connor often says that every game is a must-win; but for Orlando City, the stakes could not be higher this weekend.

“It’s been intense,” forward Chris Mueller said. “With some of the football we’ve played so far this year, I think we deserve to be higher. Being in this kind of situation, it’s frustrating, but we are where we are. We can only control what we do.”

Throughout this season, resiliency has been a necessity for Orlando City. In recent weeks, road losses and draws sucked the air out of the team, which was particularly down after its 3-0 loss in San Jose. Instead of falling into a skid, however, this year’s squad has pushed for crucial points following losses, keeping itself afloat in the postseason race.

O’Connor said this marks one of the biggest signs of growth for his team. By this time last year, the Lions were already out of playoff contention after an August losing streak pushed Orlando City to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Now, the team is drawing confidence from the fact the Lions are still in the playoff hunt during the final few weeks of play.

“Everyone is staying positive,” defender Kyle Smith said. “I think the culture drives that positivity. At this point, people might be getting at each other or giving up. The culture really is keeping us together in these most important games.”

Each player approaches this type of situation differently. Smith’s mentality is simple — he doesn’t look at the league standings at all.

O’Connor often worries his players will get smothered in the hype surrounding big-ticket games and encourages all his players to adopt Smith’s single-minded focus.

“The danger when you’ve got four games is people start getting ahead of themselves, thinking that there’s four finals left,” O’Connor said. “There’s not. There’s one final and that’s on Saturday. The concentration needs to be on New England and New England only.”

The coach doesn’t want hype to paralyze his team. He tells his players to enjoy the moment, emphasizing their best football comes from their ability to express themselves with as little pressure as possible.

That was clear on Tuesday morning, as players entered training with the same buoyancy as always — teasing the staff, stooping to touch the grass as they jogged onto the field, cracking jokes during informal games of 5-versus-2. While the pressure remains tangible, Orlando City players are doing their best to enjoy the moment.

“It’s exciting,” Smith said. “This is what we work all season long for, and now we’re right there and we have the chance to take it. We’re all very excited, I’m excited. … I feel like if we just take care of our business, things will fall where they need to fall.”

Injury update

O’Connor said defender João Moutinho is doubtful to return in time for this weekend’s match. After suffering a hamstring injury, the defender tweaked a quad and was still waiting on results Tuesday to decide on the best course of action moving forward.

Midfielder Mauricio Pereyra, however, is closer to playing again. He returned to training with the Lions this week after staying on the sidelines during the team’s past two games with a lower body injury. O’Connor said he is “hopeful” Pereyra could play restricted minutes Saturday and plans on factoring him into the team’s final games of the season.

“We want him to play a big part this year,” O’Connor said. “He’s shown when he’s played, he can impact a game. We want to try to get him where he’s in a position where he can give his best performance and can play for 90 minutes. He’s a way off from that, but that’s what we’re striving for.”

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