Throughout June, Orlando City echoed the same sentiment — the team was turning a corner as it built up a 4-1 streak. Now, with that momentum at its back, the team will kick off a two-game series on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Union, the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference.
The key to the Lions’ recent success flows through three players on the offensive end — Tesho Akindele, Chris Mueller and Nani. The trio have notched a combined 18 goals and found balance throughout the season, with Nani moving from an attacking to assisting role to create chances for Akindele and Mueller.
“You can see in the games that we’re very flexible in our positions,” Akindele said. “Sometimes I’ll drift out to one side or the other and Nani will come in or Chris will come in. I think we have a good understanding with each other that we’re able to move into different positions and find the game for ourselves.”
Philadelphia stormed to the top of the Eastern Conference table at the start of the season, but the team stumbled into a 2-1-2 run in the month of June. Although the Union remains in the top slot of the Eastern Conference, it has tumbled from a previously comfortable lead. D.C. United is now nipping at its heels, trailing by one point heading into Wednesday’s games.
The team’s recent struggles have come, in part, from a decline on the defensive end. The Union entered its June skid having only allowed 14 goals and notching seven shutouts, but then allowed 11 goals during the month.
This year’s defending falls on the shoulders of a young backline for Philadelphia. The team’s most recent starting defensive unit sported a median age of 22, with right back Raymon Gaddis standing out as the most veteran as a 29-year-old. But Akindele warned this youth doesn’t necessarily translate into an easier opponent for Orlando City.
“With youth comes a lot of excitement, which can be a good or a bad thing,” Akindele said. “Their team has been really good, so we’re not looking at them as a young team who doesn’t know what they’re doing. They’re young players, but they’re good players.”
For Orlando City coach James O’Connor, the greatest challenge of the week will be continuing to manage individual players’ health throughout a series of back-to-back games. With three matches in eight days — and a home game sandwiched between two road games — recovery time continues to be limited for the team.
O’Connor plans to focus on Wednesday’s match first, then analyze the team’s fitness on Thursday to determine which players are in the best shape to face Philadelphia on the road Saturday.
“I think when you have a lot of games, you have to really manage the load,” O’Connor said. “That’s obviously one of the biggest things. It’s a case really of just managing the players and seeing who’s in a position to go again and who maybe needs some rest.”
Although this tight scheduling continues to pose a challenge, the team will be bolstered by the return of five international players — Greg Ranjitsingh, Sebas Mendez , Will Johnson and Kamal Miller and Danilo Acosta — from the Gold Cup, along with striker Dom Dwyer.
Injuries continue to sideline midfielder Cristian Higuita, who is expected to remain out for several weeks due to a hamstring injury. Defender João Moutinho will also sit out on Wednesday due to a hamstring injury, but he appeared at Tuesday morning training to work out with trainers on the sidelines, signaling a quicker return to play.
Orlando City vs. Philadelphia Union, 7
Where: Exploria Stadium
Watch: WRBW-Channel 65
The Buzz: Orlando City is coming off a 2-0 victory over the Columbus Crew. … The team has gone 4-1 in recent games, buoyed by two shutouts. … Orlando City is led by star designated player Nani, who paces the team in goals (7) and assists (4). … Striker Dom Dwyer will return after missing four games due to a hamstring injury and the birth of his daughter. … Midfielder Cristian Higuita and defender João Moutinho will both miss the game with hamstring injuries. … Forward Kacper Przybylko leads the Union with six goals.