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Orlando City’s growth is ‘night and day’ as team chases playoff spot

As his team fights for the No. 7 spot in the conference, coach James O’Connor points to his team’s emotional commitment as reason for its success.

As he took his spot on the bench on Saturday, Robinho couldn’t hold back his tears.

He tried to hide them, walking to the sideline before coach James O’Connor caught him in a hug. He did his best to comfort the midfielder, offering reassurance that his effort had been spot on.

With the Minnesota attack bearing down on the Orlando backline throughout the first half, O’Connor needed to add a jolt to the Lions’ offense. A half-time substitution for Robinho would give new designated player Mauricio Pereyra the chance to test the waters and push Orlando higher up the field.

Robinho understood, of course, but that didn’t soften his disappointment at being pulled after 45 minutes of play. Even as he struggled to console his young player, O’Connor couldn’t bite back the pride he felt seeing his desire to stay on the pitch.

“It’s a testament to him,” O’Connor said. “It shows his level of commitment when it affects him like that. The biggest thing for me is I want people who care, and that shows that he really deeply cares about the football club.”

The moment was short-lived, a quick emotional flash in a high-stakes match. But for O’Connor, it reflects the cultural shift that has allowed Orlando City to climb close to playoff contention in the final stretch of the season.

At this point last season, Orlando City was in the middle of a free-fall to the bottom rung of the conference. This year, the team’s trajectory has flipped, sustaining and building its way towards the playoff cutoff throughout the summer.

Now locked in a three-way tie for the last spot into the postseason, anything is possible for the Lions in the coming weeks of play, adding an edge to each game.

“It’s exciting for us as the players,” forward Tesho Akindele said. “We know we’re chasing history for a playoff spot with this club.”

The simplest improvement, O’Connor says, is how hard his players run. That intensity translates on and off the field, from in-game situations to the informal five-versus-two sessions that have become a habit for the players before training.

This level of effort has also allowed the team to defend against high-volume shooting from teams during the past few weeks. With forwards tracking back all the way to the goal line, the Lions have held high-scoring teams such as Atlanta and Minnesota to minimal goals.

“The defense starts from the strikers,” defender Kyle Smith said. “Dom [Dwyer] and Tesho [Akindele] have been putting a lot of work to help us out on defense, and that’s huge. We’re grinding it out and making sure we stay compact and we’re hard to break down.”

O’Connor also points to the team’s reaction to draws as a reflection of the Lions’ commitment. After consecutive late-game goals forced draws on the road in Toronto and Minnesota, O’Connor said that his players were “absolutely gutted” in the locker room.

That frustration hasn’t caused players to become jaded or angry; instead, O’Connor says that it’s built a club mentality that is more driven and positive.

“When you compare last year to this year, it’s night and day,” O’Connor said. “When you look at the level of commitment, it’s night and day. For us it’s just reinforcing that and making sure our belief stays in place.”

Injury update

Hamstring injuries continue to haunt Orlando City, with defenders João Moutinho and Ruan remain far from a return to the pitch.

Cristian Higuita continues to train in full-contact situations with the team, but he is not expected in the team’s lineup this week. The midfielder has not seen the pitch in more than 10 games, last playing for the Lions on June 1.

Despite his debut in Minnesota, O’Connor said that he will take a similarly cautious approach to Pereyra’s integration into the team, making sure to ease the midfielder into his first full 90 minutes.

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