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Orlando City fights to keep slim playoff hopes alive at FC Cincinnati

The Lions need help from other teams to reach the postseason, but they remain focused on helping their postseason case as much as possible

Orlando City SC coach James O'Connor said the Lions are locked in and ready to fight for a win at FC Cincinnati. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — The final hopes of the Orlando City’s postseason bid rest on Saturday’s match in Cincinnati. Although the Lions’ playoff chances remain out of the team’s’ full control — Orlando City needs New England, Montreal and Chicago to lose their final matches — they are holding onto the slim margin of chance to clinch the first postseason berth in club history.

To do so, the Lions will have to win back-to-back games for the first time all season. The first step of that process means securing a road win over FC Cincinnati.

The situation is optimal for Orlando City — FC Cincinnati has only won six games this season, posting the worst record in the league. However, Cincinnati has proven that it is capable of spoiling seasons recently, beating Montreal 1-0 last weekend to help sink the Impact lower in playoff contention.

“MLS is a league of parity, so you can’t take any team lightly,” Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele said. “They have really good players, people I’ve played with and against, and they have something to prove. They still want to get a few results.”

The Lions have been strong on the road this season, suffering seven losses during 16 away games. However, Orlando City has earned six draws and only notched three wins away from home. The Lions are winless during their past six games, with their most recent victory coming against Sporting Kansas City in mid-August. 

Cincinnati isn’t a high-scoring team, netting a league-lowest 30 goals on the season and suffering back-to-back scoreless finishes in its last two games. However, the team has shown its ability to attack in transition, and O’Connor said that his team’s hunger to score will need to be balanced with a wariness of the counterattack.

“They have a lot of pace,” O’Connor said. “Again it’s managing the transition moments because they have a lot of pace on their team. When we’re attacking we need to make sure that we’re very careful of how quickly they can transition into attack.”

Midfielder Cristian Higuita will be serving a suspension for yellow card accumulation this weekend, but O’Connor said he wouldn’t have played regardless due to an adductor injury he suffered during the Houston match. However, the coach said that Mauricio Pereyra is close to 90-minute fitness and could see his first full game for the Lions this weekend.

Pereyra has bolstered the midfield throughout the final third of the season, particularly during Higuita’s absences due to injury. Pereyra exit from the Houston game alongside Higuita marked a clear turning point for the Lions, who grew sluggish in possession after Pereyra went to the sideline. If Pereyra can play a full game, it could offer an important continuity boost for the Lions’ midfield.

For Orlando City, the past week has been filled with uncertainty — a win by New England on Wednesday could have eliminated the Lions from the playoff and, even now, the Lions’ odds of earning a postseason bid are only 3%. But O’Connor said the lack of control has only made his players more focused on their performance.

“We approached [this week] harder than ever,” defender Kamal Miller said. “We know that these last two games are so important. We know that if we can get these three points, we can put pressure on other teams.”

Scouting report

Orlando City vs. FC Cincinnati, 5 p.m.

Where: BBVA Compass Stadium

Watch: WRBW-Channel 65, Youtube TV, ESPN+

The Buzz: Orlando City took an early lead on the road against the Houston Dynamo, but ceded two second half goals during a 2-1 loss. … Dom Dwyer scored the opening goal in the sixth minute. … FC Cincinnati muscled out a 0-0 draw against Chicago last week. … Nani leads Orlando City in scoring with 12 goals, while also pacing the Lions with 10 assists. … The Cincinnati attack is led in scoring by Emmanuel Ledesma and Allan Cruz, who have six goals apiece this season, while Ledesma has added four assists.

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