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Orlando City enjoys change of pace after whirlwind month

With defender João Moutinho returned from an injury, the team’s roster is almost full-strength as it approaches slower stretch of games.

Orlando City SC forward Tesho Akindele (13) dribbles the ball against the New York Red Bulls Sunday at Exploria Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — For a few days at least, Orlando City can breathe. The team has maintained a breakneck pace during the past month, managing cross-country treks and three-game weeks.

Now, the team can enjoy a stretch of playing one game a week, starting with Saturday’s road match against the New England Revolution. As the team returned to training on Tuesday morning, the ability to refresh before the next match was appreciated across the roster.

“Honestly, we haven’t been able to have real training sessions for almost a month,” Lions forward Tesho Akindele said. “We’ve just been playing game, game, game. It’ll be good to get back in training, play some possession games, just have a little fun.”

Although the team has been craving a short break during the past few weeks of back-to-back scheduling, the timing of a pause directly after a loss wasn’t ideal for the players, either.

After a 1-0 loss at home on Sunday — punctuated by three shots that rebounded off the woodwork, only inches away from equalizing — goalkeeper Brian Rowe said the team feels antsy to play.

“It’s always tough following a loss,” Rowe said. “You want to get right back out on the field and correct that, get back on track and get some points.”

Sunday’s loss kept Orlando City in the No. 9 slot in the Eastern Conference, but it dropped the Lions four points below the playoff cutoff line. After briefly hopping up above the line in April, the team has hovered between No. 8 and No. 9 spots in the conference since the start of June.

Despite the Lions’ position in the standings, Rowe said the team has shown it can compete with everyone.

“I think matching up against all of these teams, we’ve seen all the way up the table, we’ve competed against every single one of them,” Rowe said. “I think we’ve, at times, put ourselves in tough situations where I don’t necessarily think teams have broken us down. I think we’ve hurt ourselves, but when we fall behind and we’re playing catch up, then we show the kind of football we can play.”

Rowe said the shared belief Orlando’s losses come from self-inflicted mistakes leaves the team with a responsibility to eliminate mistakes the remainder of the season. But it also gives the Lions hope they are capable of clinching a playoff berth.

“We’re in the mix,” Orlando City defender João Moutinho said. “We’re obviously a few points behind, but we want to get to that playoff line and I’m pretty sure we’re going to get there.”

Moutinho returned to the pitch Sunday against the Red Bulls after missing six games. After he suffered a hamstring injury during the team’s June match against Montreal, Moutinho sat out for more than a month. In his first game back, the defender logged a full 90 minutes for the Lions, reclaiming his place on the left flank of the backline.

At first, Moutinho said it it felt like he got off to a slow start. He took a hard knock in the opening minutes of the match and entered the second half feeling tired. But extended play bolstered his confidence and the second half saw the defender pushing further up the pitch and returning to his typical attacking rhythm.

“It feels good to be back,” Moutinho said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve played, so it feels very good to be back out here with the guys. All of the confidence came back up with the minutes that I was getting.”

Between Moutinho’s injury and the team’s heavy schedule during the past month, the Orlando City coach James O’Connor has consistently rotated players on his backline. The emphasis on player versatility was highlighted during the team’s game against the Portland Timbers Thursday, when an injury forced midfielder Will Johnson to drop into the right back role and outside back Kyle Smith to take on a center back position.

To Moutinho, the defense’s ability to rotate among a variety of lineups is a testament to the “next man up” mentality O’Connor instills throughout the team.

“I think everyone has been working very hard, even when they’re not playing as much as they wanted to,” Moutinho said. “Everyone’s been working well since the beginning. So when different people need to come in and do the job, it’s just as good.”

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