ORLANDO, Fla. — With only five games left to earn a place above the playoff cutoff line, Orlando City will take on the top brass of Major League Soccer on Saturday.
LAFC has dominated MLS throughout this season, dropping only four matches and scoring 74 goals as it forged a double-digit lead for the Supporters Shield standings.
“They’re top of the West and top of the Supporters Shield for a reason,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said. “The biggest thing for us is making sure that our mentality is right and making sure that we’re not intimidated in any way. There can’t be any fear.”
This weekend the Lions will face a different version of the league leader, as six of the team’s players will be absent due to international duty. Additionally, the team will most likely play without captain Carlos Vela, who has scored 27 goals and added 15 assists for the Black and Gold this season.
The captain suffered a hamstring injury during the team’s game against the Los Angeles Galaxy two weeks ago. Vela was not listed on the team’s projected starting XI and did not play in last weekend’s 2-0 loss to Minnesota United FC.
Even without Vela, the team brings depth at every position. LAFC is capable of possessing for huge swaths of the game, holding the ball for more than 80% of the team’s match against Minnesota United last week.
The challenge in disrupting this possession comes in balancing aggression and caution. The Lions will need to press high in order to prevent LAFC from establishing itself out the back, but they will need to guard against the streaky speed of Latif Blessing and Diego Rossi, both of whom can rip up the field in transition.
“We have to be on point from the start,” Lions midfielder Uri Rosell said. “Sometimes it’s not easy, but we have to be very confident. We have to be focused on just being ourselves.”
For the Orlando City midfield, the key will be to establish a pace of play from the opening whistle. After a sluggish start in last week’s loss in San Jose, O’Connor said that the team is eager to erase that memory with an aggressive start to this weekend’s game.
Although Orlando City fell 1-0 to Atlanta United, the Lions pointed to their performance against the Five Stripes as a reflection of how the team can react to a high-intensity opponent.
“We need to go and play our game,” O’Connor said. “We need to get out and get the same level of performance that we did against Atlanta. We got beat, but when you look at the level of performance and the amount of chances created, that’s the level that we want to see.”
With five players called up to their national teams, Orlando City could get a boost from the return of several injured players.
O’Connor said midfielder Mauricio Pereyra is not likely to make an appearance in Saturday’s game. The designated player brought an aggressive energy in his first start at home against Atlanta United, but he suffered an injury and has not returned to the pitch since. He worked on the sidelines away from the team during training throughout the week.
However, midfielder Cristian Higuita played the second half of last weekend’s game against San Jose after spending almost 14 weeks out with a hamstring injury. Outside backs Ruan and João Moutinho, who have been recovering from hamstring injuries, have been moved to “questionable” for this weekend. The pair returned to contact training with the Lions this week.
Orlando City vs. LAFC, 7:30
Where: Exploria Stadium
Watch: WRBW-Channel 65, Youtube TV, ESPN+
The Buzz: Orlando City fell 3-0 on the road against San Jose last weekend. … LAFC suffered a 2-0 loss at home against Minnesota United on Sunday. … Nani and Tesho Akindele are tied for the Lions’ lead in scoring, with nine apiece. Nani also paces Orlando City with eight assists. … Captain Carlos Vela leads LAFC in both goals (27) and assists (15).