Orlando City stretched its regular season unbeaten streak to three games with a win over Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday, moving just below the playoff cutoff line. Here are three things we learned from the victory:
Lions secure the win, even if it’s not pretty
When the final whistle blew on Wednesday night, the crowd in the stands let out a collective, audible sigh of relief.
The upcoming stretch of games can all be categorized as “must-win” for the Lions. In the past — and even throughout this season — it’s been rare for Orlando City to stitch together streaks of positive results. The team has yet to win back-to-back regular season games this year and it has remained just shy of playoff contention throughout the season due to its hot and cold performances.
But the win over Sporting KC was the Lions’ third consecutive positive regular season result, following a draw in Toronto and a win over Dallas. With the win against SKC, the Lions edged closer to playoff contention, pulling even in points with Toronto, which occupies the No. 7 slot with one more win.
For O’Connor, that made the result on Wednesday feel encouraging despite the quality of play.
“It wasn’t pretty,” O’Connor said. “You always want the perfect performance, regardless of whether you win. I think that the massive encouraging sign for us as a club is we did not play well tonight, but we won the game. At this stage of the season we needed three points.”
His team echoed this sentiment, admitting that play was often sloppy, heightened by pressing humidity that left players exhausted midway through the match. Forward Tesho Akindele pointed out that in these situations, the teams that move onto the postseason are the teams who win ugly games.
“Sometimes you play good, sometimes you don’t, but good teams find a way to win,” Akindele said.
For Orlando City, the ability to deliver results in similar matches will make the difference in securing the club’s first playoff berth.
Orlando City backline ties club shutout record
The Lions earned their seventh shutout of the season Wednesday, a tie for the club record. Orlando City has set this record twice before, once in 2015 and again in 2017. For the Lions, this notch is a small reflection of the growing success and comfort of the backline.
The clean sheet didn’t reflect a lack of challenge for the Orlando defense. For the second match in a row, the Lions faced an opponent who brought a major jolt of attack in the second half, forcing Orlando City to defend for most of the final 45 minutes.
Sporting Kansas City took 14 shots, forcing keeper Brian Rowe to make three saves, but only three of them fell on frame. The Lions limited SKC’s opportunities in the box.
“We’ve been a lot harder to break down,” Orlando City defender Shane O’Neill said. “It’s maybe not exciting to watch, but we’re definitely more pragmatic now.”
Early goals change the game
Earlier in July, Orlando City often fell behind early matches and had to rally from deficits. In recent weeks, however, the Lions have flipped that narrative on its head, scoring in the opening third of the game more often.
The team’s past two home wins have been highlighted by an early goal, both of which came from Akindele — against Dallas he scored in the 13th minute and against Kansas City he scored in the 21st.
“It’s something we talked about, because earlier in the season, we were going down early and it’s demoralizing,” Akindele said. “You’re fighting from behind and the other team can just bunker in. Playing ahead is a lot more fun and it’s something we’ve tried to prioritize.”
The early lead allowed Orlando City to focus defensively in the second half. In a tied or trailing position, the team might have been more inclined to bite in transition, taking risks and pushing up higher into the field. Stretching into transition in that way could have, in turn, left the Lions even more vulnerable to the edgy Kansas City attack.
Taking the early lead allowed Orlando City to pick and choose its counter-attack moments more carefully.
“At the end of the day when you’re going forward, you can’t get sucked into the transition game,” O’Neill said. “It’s enticing to go forward, you want to go forward, but that means you’ve got to go back if you lose the ball, so it’s just finding that balance.”