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Orlando City looks to forge “versatile” attacking style in season opener without top stars

With captain Nani suspended and striker Dom Dwyer still recovering from an injury, the Lions will need to look to other attackers for season opener.

Orlando City Soccer players, from left: Jhegson Sebastian Mendez, Nani, and Chris Mueller, walk onto the pitch during the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — With a new coach and old frustrations weighing on its shoulders, Orlando City will look to open the 2020 season Saturday on a positive note — most likely without its top two offensive stars.

Designated player and captain Nani will be ineligible for the first two games of the season, as he sits out a suspension that came as penalty for behavior towards a referee in the final game of last season.

Meanwhile, after entering this year vowing to prove himself following a 2019 shooting slump, designated player Dom Dwyer sustained a lower body injury in preseason training. Although his status is still undetermined for the opener, he has not practiced with the rest of the team for almost two weeks, making it unlikely he could play a full 90 minutes Saturday.

With the possibility of starting the season without Nani or Dwyer, the Lions will look to veteran Tesho Akindele and sophomore striker Benji Michel to spark new coach Óscar Pareja’s high-scoring, high-paced brand of play in Exploria Stadium.

Although Nani won’t play this weekend, the captain said this challenge fits into the Lions’ overall goal to create a versatile offense that allows each of the forwards to feature interchangeably in the attack.

“We’re more team than individual players,” Nani said. “If there is another player there, you will see something similar. That is part of what the coach is asking us to do. That’s why it looks easy. if we continue with this with this focus with this determination … we will see much more connection with any player on the field.”

Orlando City’s 44 goals scored last season placed the team fourth lowest in scoring in the Eastern Conference and fifth lowest in MLS overall. In a year filled with defensive improvement, the team’s diminished goal production caused the Lions to still finish the 2019 season with a -8 goal differential.

Despite this lack of scoring, Orlando City only made one addition to its attacking unit in the offseason — MLS SuperDraft selection Daryl Dike, who vice president of soccer operation Luiz Muzzi said “doesn’t need to be that impact [player] right away.”

Instead, the Lions will look to retool their attack through a swath of changes to the midfield, both on the roster and in its style of play. For returning strikers such as Akindele — who had a career-best season in 2019 with 10 goals — last year’s scoring challenges don’t necessarily create pressure for the strikers this season.

“I don’t really feel too much pressure, because I think that we have a lot of good players on our team,” Akindele said. “Last year, we created a lot of chances, and maybe we didn’t finish well, which is the easier part of the game. I would be more concerned if we were not creating any chances.”

A widespread goal throughout every position group on the team is to avoid chasing opponents by falling behind early in the game — particularly at home in Exploria Stadium. For the strikers, this means an added emphasis on scoring early in games.

The team succeeded in netting early goals in its preseason match KR Reykjavik last week, with Nani scoring in the second minute of action. That early goal opened up the Orlando City attack to finish with three total — one from Michel and another from Nani — and the sophomore striker said the early score created an important boost of confidence for the rest of the unit.

“We’re trying to keep it simple and move the ball fast,” Michel said. “Just keeping the play as quick as possible. It’s really, really, really important to be able to score early and score the first goal.”

From the beginning of his induction as the team’s new coach, Pareja has expressed a goal of empowering Orlando City to dictate the style and pace of each game. Although this includes increasing the team’s on-ball possession, the coach does not believe in possessing without a purpose.

Instead, his concept for Orlando’s new style relies on quick passing with a direct focus on angling toward goal. In preseason matches, the team showed glimpses of this style. The team passed the ball swiftly through the midfield, sometimes switching the field two or three times in less than a minute.

However, even when playing out of the back line, Pareja’s Lions were always quick to probe towards goal, sending cutting balls and slashing runs into the box in quick succession.

“My idea of possession is to have practical possession, possession that is helping us to [disorganize] teams and that has an objective,” Pareja said. “Not possessing the ball to possess it, I think that’s a waste of time. We want to get into spaces where we put our players where they can hurt the other teams, make ruptures and break their lines and create opportunities to score. We’re going to be growing and emphasizing in that part.”

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