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Orlando City pushes to build on momentum against potent Toronto FC

Orlando City coach James O’Connor has no interest in the past. He’s focused on a stiff challenge at home Saturday against a Toronto FC side that leads the Eastern Conference in points per game with 13 points through just seven matches.

Orlando City forward Nani (17) looks to kick the ball during the second half against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Orlando City Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — The first win of Orlando City coach James O’Connor’s tenure with the Lions came at home against Toronto FC.

It was a victory that bucked two trends. At the time, it stopped the Lions’ franchise record nine-match losing streak in league play. It also put an end to a five-match winless run for the Lions against the Reds.

Of course, O’Connor has no interest in the past. He’s focused on what’s ahead of him. What’s next is a stiff challenge against a Toronto FC side that leads the Eastern Conference in points per game with 13 points through just seven matches. The Lions (3-3-3, 12 points) host TFC (4-2-1, 13 points) Saturday at Orlando City Stadium.

“Whatever’s happened in the past is the past,” O’Connor said. “It has no bearing on what happens on Saturday’s game. For us, it’s making sure that we’re intentional about this Toronto team, we have an understanding to attack, how to defend and making sure we’re prepared as best we possibly can for what will be a tough game. A very good team.”

The Lions have gathered a bit of momentum lately. They’re unbeaten in their last two matches – a 1-0 home win over the Vancouver Whitecaps and a 1-1 draw with NYCFC in Yankee Stadium – and have wins in three of their last six. Orlando City has won its last two home matches after getting off to a rough start at Orlando City Stadium. 

Part of the Lions’ rise can be attributed to the play of star designated player Nani, who has five goals in the team’s last four matches.

“I think when you look at the performances, I think we’ve been pleased overall with the performances,” O’Connor said. “I think there’s been some days where we’ve had aspects that we’ve been really pleased with and some other days where we’ve thought, ‘OK, well, that needs to be better.’

“I think the most pleasing fact has been the openness of the players. I think you look at what they’re trying to achieve and the intensity that they’re working at, I think that gives us great encouragement.”

Toronto FC is coming off a 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers. The Reds have had little trouble scoring goals — they’re tied for second in the league with 19 goals scores. TFC has conceded 13 goals through seven matches. 

Forward Jozy Altidore, who leads Toronto FC with five goals, is expected to miss Saturday’s match due to a hamstring injury. Still, new designated player Alejandro Pozeulo is capable of making an impact. The Spanish attacking midfielder already has dazzled crowds with four goals and four assists in five matches.

“He’s obviously a very good player,” O’Connor said about Pozuelo. “I mean whatever they spent, millions, on the kid. I mean, he’s a very talented player. But it’s not just him. You’ve got Michael Bradley … you can go on. I think that’s the thing with MLS. There’s multiple players that can affect the game.”

The Lions are 2-6-1 all-time against Toronto FC. Both of Orlando City’s wins over TFC have come during home matches.

Forward Tesho Akindele said a victory would be big for the Lions.

He doesn’t think the Lions’ past trouble slowing TFC is a factor entering Saturday’s matchup.

“Historically is one thing,” Akindele said. “But they’re such a different team right now. Maybe historically, it hasn’t been good, but there’s a lot of new players. I think it’s a new vibe and I think focusing on the past is not really helpful to anybody.”

O’Connor said Tuesday was an intense day of training for the Lions. Wednesday’s session was more “structural.”

“Every game we play, we want to win,” O’Connor said. “So, I think the goal for us is to work hard through the week and then to get a good level of performance that allows you to go and try and win the game. We’re serious about we’re trying to do here. We’re desperate to be successful this season and go on and really achieve some special things.”

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