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Orlando City gets boost from Nani’s high quality performances

Orlando City defender Sebas Méndez (8) and forward Nani (17) play the ball against New York City FC midfielder Ebenezer Ofori (12) during the second half at Yankee Stadium. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

BRONX, N.Y. — Orlando City left Yankee Stadium with a point after a 1-1 draw with New York City FC. Here are three takeaways from the match:

Nani’s rise

Nani’s shot conversion rate so far this season is 33.3 percent. He has five goals on 15 shots and his shot conversion rate is the highest of any player in MLS with at least five goals. As of Sunday afternoon, there are nine players, including Nani, with at least five goals.

Nani is also one of two players in the league with at least four assists to go with his five goals. The other is LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The Portuguese international has five goals in his least four appearances for the Lions. His goal in the 18th minute of Saturday’s match against the Pigeons gave Orlando City an early lead and he would have had a first-half brace were it not for a goal-line clearance. He also likely would have ended up with a secondary assist if Tesho Akindele’s goal stood. 

So far, Nani has been earning the designated player tag Orlando City gave him when he was signed before the start of the season. As Sacha Kljestan said after Orlando City’s 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, players like Nani are brought in to score goals and rack up assists. Nani leads Orlando City in both categories.

The Lions are 2-1-1 (7 points) since Nani began his goal-scoring streak. After Saturday’s match, Nani said the team was looking for more against NYCFC.

“I think we must be disappointed because we want to be a very [ambitious] team,” he said. “We are working on that, so we must be disappointed because we want to be on the top. We want to improve every week.”

Midfield trio

Orlando City coach James O’Connor opted to start Will Johnson, Uri Rosell and Sebas Méndez in the middle of a 4-3-3 formation for the second week in a row, and all three midfielders pulled their weight on Saturday.

Johnson had a team-high six tackles and completed 77.4 percent of his 31 passes. Rosell – for the second week in a row – led the team in touches. He also had 14 recoveries against NYCFC and seven clearances. Méndez has been a star-in-the-making for Orlando City and continued his solid play in the middle of the pitch on Saturday.

This could be a winning combination for Orlando City. Méndez and Johnson are two defensive midfielders O’Connor is clearly comfortable with and Rosell has always been a top-level distributor.

O’Connor praised all three of the team’s starting midfielders.

“I think when you look at the three of them, they all look very comfortable in the positions they’ve played,” O’Connor said. “Their work ethic and their ability to help their teammates to transition across and really defend, and also then sprint forward and try to create something going forward is something we’ve been pleased with.”

Of course, O’Connor has proven he’s willing to switch things up. But, sometimes, a little consistency goes a long way. It’ll be interesting to see how long O’Connor goes with this midfield trio. 

What’s next?

Orlando City still has some issues that need to be ironed out as the calendar turns to May.

Dom Dwyer has struggled to score lately. His missed header in the 62nd minute of Saturday’s match punctuates a four-match scoreless streak for the star striker after he started the season with three goals in four games and a goal or an assist in Orlando City’s first five matches.

It’s hard to believe he won’t figure things out at some point. He’ll get more opportunities, and when he’s in form, he’s one of Orlando City’s best scoring options.

Outside of Dwyer’s struggles, there are still questions in the back for Orlando City. Lamine Sané looked shaky at times against NYCFC and it still looks like communication needs to improve along the back line.

Orlando City’s next three matches are against Toronto FC, Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders. May, once again, could be a defining month for Orlando City. 

“We always learn,” Nani said. “We always learn, considering the opponent. Because every team plays different. They show different movements. They show different players and we must be prepared to play against each team.

“We are working every week. We are improving. That’s the most important. We are learning how to play with different tactics, different style of players. At the end, the most important [thing] in this moment is what we improve on the last week.”

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