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Orlando City focuses on stronger early starts ahead of final three matches

After ceding goals in the opening 15 minutes of the last three games, the Lions are looking to strike first this weekend against Houston.

New England Revolution forward Brian Wright (middle) drives between Orlando City defender Lamine Sane (left) and defender Ruan (right) Saturday at Exploria Stadium. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — For Orlando City, Saturday’s draw with New England has changed the tone of the final three games of the regular season.

The biggest difference now is the Lions’ chances of earning a playoff bid rest as much on other teams’ performances as on their own.

As a result, Orlando City coach James O’Connor is emphasizing the importance of focusing on this week’s match and ignoring the playoff scenarios.

“We aren’t in a position now to completely control our own destiny,” O’Connor said. “What we need to do now is get a strong performance in Houston and then see what happens after that. It’s making sure our focus is on one particular game. It’s pointless going through the different dynamics of what might happen.”

Orlando City can bolster its playoff hopes by sweeping its final three games against Houston, Cincinnati and Chicago. A key to winning all three matches — two of which will be played on the road — will be to strike first on the attack.

The Lions have ceded a goal in the opening 15 minutes of the past three games, a pattern the team fell into earlier this season as well. Orlando City rallied during the past two games for draws, but on the road in San Jose, a goal in the third minute deflated the team for the rest of the game.

On one hand, the Lions are bolstered by their recent ability to come back from early deficits. This resiliency has helped Orlando City players feel encouraged they can overcome difficult situations. 

“We’ve showed that we don’t give up until the end of the game,” Orlando City’s Carlos Ascues said. “It’s not just important to be the first team to score at the end of the season, it’s important to score first throughout the season. It brings more confidence to the team.”

The Lions haven’t lacked early scoring opportunities — against New England, for instance, Tesho Akindele rifled off a shot from the box in the second minute of play. But Orlando City hasn’t been to finish early chances consistently.

Orlando City is now pushing to score first to establish control during must-win games.

“We don’t want to [have to] every game come back,” Nani said. “We want to be a consistent team, to try to perform from the beginning, be strong from the beginning, [not] give them an easy chance. The good news is we always can come back … but I hope in the next game we can win from the beginning.”

Even if Orlando City secures nine points during the next three games, the Lions aren’t guaranteed a spot in the postseason. Sitting three spots and four points below the playoff cutoff line, the team will need New England, Montreal and Chicago to struggle to vault into the last spot in the Eastern Conference.

It’s not improbable the teams could pick up a few losses — New England, for instance, faces Real Salt Lake, New York City FC and Atlanta United in the next three weeks — but those results are out of the Lions’ control.

O’Connor ultimately has to focus on his team and hopes to build on the dramatic transformation the team has made after closing last season riding a lengthy losing streak.

“When you look at the guys and you look at how much they’ve given, it’s fantastic that we’ve been able to get back but I think we are disappointed not to win these games,” O’Connor said. “The guys have given absolutely everything. It’s fantastic to see. We want to encourage more of that when guys are giving everything for the 90 minutes.”

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