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Orlando City heads to Toronto for crucial Eastern Conference matchup

The match offers an opportunity for Orlando City to make an important move against Toronto, which sits directly above the Lions in the standings.

Orlando City hits the road to face Toronto FC in a critical matchup Saturday as the Lions push to earn the first MLS playoff spot in club history.

Eighth place Toronto (9-5-10, 32 points) sits directly above ninth place Orlando City (8-5-11, 29 points) in the Eastern Conference table. Saturday’s match offers the team a vital opportunity for Orlando City to close the gap and move closer to its a playoff bid.

Orlando City entered this week with two goals — make the playoffs and advance to the finals of the Open Cup. After a 2-0 loss to Atlanta Tuesday that eliminated the Lions from the Cup and left them with a bitter taste in their mouths, Orlando City has doubled down its focus on the MLS standings. The team’s messaging throughout the week has been simple, but firm — this season is far from over.

“I’m not gonna lie, the day after the Open Cup everybody was a little down,” forward Tesho Akindele said. “We had to realize that we still have other goals. It’s not like the season is over and we should be devastated. With a little time, everyone bounced back and we’re feeling a little more positive and ready to get back into MLS action.”

On the attacking end, Toronto brings a wide array of offensive options, led by Alejandro Pozuelo and U.S. national team star Jozy Altidore. Both attackers have netted nine goals so far this season, with Pozuelo adding nine assists. Besides its team leaders, the Toronto offense features versatile playmakers Michael Bradley, Nick DeLeon and Jonathan Osorio.

While the Toronto lineup is stocked with experienced attackers, its backline has stumbled at times throughout the season. Toronto’s 40 goals allowed this season is one of the highest numbers in the conference, and recent multiple-goal losses to the Red Bulls, Galaxy and Dynamo have highlighted concerns along the backline.

For Orlando City, the key against the TFC back line will be to break out of a finishing slump that has plagued the team during the past month. The Lions’ inability to finish chances — placing only two shots on frame despite taking 18 — on Tuesday night led to the the team’s exit from the Open Cup. Aside from last Saturday’s 2-0 win over FC Dallas, finishing was a problem during 1-0 losses to New England and New York.

“We’re trying to make sure there’s an understanding of attacking principles,” coach James O’Connor said. “Like everywhere, there’s a balance to everything. We’ve nothing to be frightened of, I think the biggest thing is to make sure there’s no lack of focus. We need to make sure we’re dialed in.”

The Lions haven’t ever notched a win at BMO Field, but this team has performed well on the road, notching 13 points in 12 road matches so far this season. That number is only three points less than the team has generated in the same number of games at home. Orlando City has proven particularly capable of grinding out draws in enemy territory, producing four on the road this year.

The two teams have already met once this season in May, with Toronto earning a 2-0 victory in Orlando, lifted by second half goals from Jonathan Osorio and Jay Chapman. Since then, TFC has fluttered around the playoff line, struggling to put together a run to make a final push into the top seven teams in the conference.

“As we get to the end of the season, it’s a time to start stringing results together and gaining some ground when we have opportunities to play the teams above us,” goalkeeper Brian Rowe said. “It’s a big game. They’ve got a lot of danger going forward. On the road, it helps us to be defensive-minded and build from there.”

Shane O’Neill and Alex De John are available for Saturday’s match after they were placed in concussion protocol. Midfielder Cristian Higuita continues to recover from his long-term hamstring injury, while defender João Moutinho is questionable after suffering a hamstring injury during the Lions’ Open Cup loss. Newly added designated player Mauricio Pereyra will also remain out of the rotation as he works to reach match fitness after getting signed during the Russian league offseason.

Scouting report

Orlando City vs. Toronto FC, 7:30

Where: BMO Field

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

The Buzz: Orlando City is coming off a 2-0 loss to Atlanta United in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals on Tuesday, Toronto FC earned a 2-0 victory over the Ottawa Fury in the first round of the Canadian Championship semifinals. Drew Moor scored in the 30th minute and Tsubasa Endoh netted a second goal in the first minute of stoppage time to lift TFC to the win. …  The Lions are led by star designated player Nani, who has goals (8) and assists (8), but the captain hasn’t scored in 10 matches. … Tesho Akindele is tied with Nani in goals scored, with eight netted so far this season …  Toronto FC is led on the offensive end by Alejandro Pozuelo, who paces the team with nine goals and nine assists, and Jozy Altidore, who has netted nine goals.

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