Orlando City has been in a race for the postseason throughout the summer, but it hadn't really felt like a real race through the latter months of the dog days. The Lions, although they weren't mathematically eliminated from contention, looked hapless on the pitch, and as loss after loss stacked up, the vibe surrounding the club was much less spirited than it had been in the early season.
Now, though, the Lions are on the heels of a two-match win streak, having added six points to their season total while infusing a bit of life into their pursuit of the sixth spot in the East--currently occupied by Montreal Impact. Orlando is still in a tough spot, as Montreal holds two games in hand to go along with a four-point lead and an edge in goal differential, but now -- unlike so much of the summertime -- it finally feels like the Lions have a race on their hands.
According to OCSC manager Adrian Heath, a personal chat with his players last week set it all on the table and, despite working with an extremely thin margin for error, has reinvigorated some passion into the side.
"We had a really good heart-to-heart last Thursday where we spoke about what the next four or five games mean to us as a group," Heath said Tuesday on his coach's show. "I think it's had an effect because they've shown their desire the last couple weeks and it sets us up for what's now going to be a huge game for us on Friday."
Having successfully turned the ship around after the dark days of August with wins over Sporting Kansas City and Chicago Fire, the Lions now turn their attention to New York Red Bulls, easily the most formidable opponent left on their regular season slate. After that, they finish the season with three consecutive matches against the very teams they're battling against for sixth place -- Montreal, New York City FC and Philadelphia Union.
To have success in that stretch and keep their postseason hopes alive, Heath says the Lions have to tune out the external noise that can be so hard to mute in 2015.
"Before the [Chicago] game, as I said to the players, with the social media now we knew that [NYCFC] were winning," Heath explained Tuesday. "We knew that Montreal were going to win. I said ‘That doesn't change anything for us. We have to take something from this game and we have to concentrate only on what we are going to do.'"
The shortcomings of late July and August can't be fixed at this point, and the Lions will need to dig out of a hole if they are to reach the postseason in their first season in MLS.
Despite the bumps in the road, Heath has always believed his squad was capable of putting together another streak of results like it did back in May, and stealing points at NYRB on Friday would provide a huge boost as the Lions head into the pivotal match-up with Montreal in the Citrus Bowl.
"I said a couple of weeks ago, this team is capable of winning three or four games and, if that was the case, it would pull us very close to being in the playoffs," said Heath. "I wanted to keep it alive and I think we've kept it alive for another week, and I want to keep it alive until we get Montreal here."
While the playoffs remain the goal, the objective this week is simply to "keep it alive." By staying in their lane and focusing on what they can control, the Lions will have a chance to do that for a third straight week.