SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City has entered what could be its most challenging stretch of matches this season.
The Lions (3-4-3, 12 points) are coming off a 2-0 loss to Toronto FC and face rival Atlanta United on Sunday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. After that, it’s a mid-week road match against the Seattle Sounders, followed by a home match against FC Cincinnati to cap a run of three games in seven days.
Coach James O’Connor has spoken all season about managing players to make sure they’re ready for the toughest parts of the season. After the team lacked energy in the second half against Toronto, O’Connor’s methods are about to be put to the test.
“I think, the analysis, really, looking at last week, I think I’ll take some responsibility,” O’Connor said. “I mean, there’s a couple of days maybe we pushed a little bit too hard. I think, again, for us, it’s being intentional about looking at all aspects. I think going into the game now against Atlanta, we need to be focused because they’re obviously a very good team. A big rivalry, so a game we’re looking forward to and excited to go and play.”
Playing three matches in a single week is one thing. Something that’ll make this upcoming stretch brutal is the amount of travel involved.
“Interesting schedule,” O’Connor said.
He added, “I think the biggest thing for us is making sure that you manage the players in a way that allows for a strong performance. I think that’s what we’re all striving for. I think when you go into a game where you’ve got Sunday, and then you’ve have to step on a plane and fly five hours or six hours, whatever it is, over to Seattle play again on the Wednesday, deal with a three-hour time difference, there’s a lot of factors that need to be considered.”
Plus, Orlando City’s depth is likely to be tested.
“It’s very important that all the guys are fit and they’re expecting to play, because I believe that everybody’s going to play in one game or two, maybe,” left back João Moutinho said. “I believe that everyone is very important for this week.”
O’Connor agreed with his starting left back and said he anticipates “a lot of players getting a lot of minutes” over the next three matches.
“I’ve probably got half a chance of getting in there myself and playing,” O’Connor said with a smile.
Speaking seriously, O’Connor said, “We feel as if we’ve got players that can play. The great thing about our group is we’ve tried to make sure that everyone feels a part of what we’re trying to do.”
Of course, first up is Atlanta United. The 2017 MLS expansion side and the 2018 MLS champions share a rivalry with Orlando City, but the Lions have yet to beat the Five Stripes.
Goalkeeper Brian Rowe said he hopes the lack of energy in the second half of the Lions’ last match was just a “one-off” thing.
“It’s something that is great about this sport and all sports is you have a performance like that, it hurts everyone and everyone’s frustrated about it, but then this week we have a great opportunity to fix it and move things in the right direction,” Rowe said. “I think that’s what our mind is set on right now.”
Atlanta plays Toronto FC on Wednesday. United struggled to start the season, but the team appears to have hit its stride with wins over the Colorado Rapids and Sporting KC in recent weeks.
“Look, they’re the champions,” O’Connor said. “Obviously, going to the champions in their home, whatever it is, 60-, 70,000 people, it’s going to be a massive game. These are the types of games that our players should want to play in.”
Carlos Ascues (quad) wasn’t present for the media portion of training on Wednesday. O’Connor said the defensive midfielder/centerback is “coming back, he’s just taking a little bit of time.”
Brazilian right back Ruan was present for training after he went down in the late stages of Saturday’s match. O’Connor said Ruan should be fine and that the speedster was just dealing with a lot of fatigue.
Centerbacks Lamine Sané and Shane O’Neill weren’t present for the media portion of training on Wednesday. Both players were being managed and neither is dealing with a specific injury.
The league’s primary transfer window closed on Tuesday and James O’Connor said there were “a couple of things, I think, [the club] looked at,” but “it didn’t really happen.”
“For us, it’s just … making sure we focus on the ones that we have and when we do get an opportunity, maybe, to tweak things, we try,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process there.”