With only 10 days remaining before Orlando City kicks off its 2016 campaign against Real Salt Lake at the Citrus Bowl, it's an exciting time of year for Lions fans, but the fast approach of the regular season means that the pressure is rising for the squad as the real matches begin to roll in. Only one preseason tune-up remains between now and the opener – Saturday night vs. Brazilian side Esporte Clube Bahia – and it's an opportunity the Lions need to take advantage of to ensure success on March 6.
The final preseason friendly means the final opportunity to get sharp and in-shape in a game setting. The starting XI that Adrian Heath rolls out on Saturday will be something fairly close to what we can expect next weekend against RSL.
"Obviously the last [friendly] before the season starts is always important," Heath said earlier this week. "You're hoping to give what's as near to your starting XI a full 90 [minutes] if we can. We might be able to switch it around a little bit, because we don't think everybody who is going to be available opening day will be ready to do 90 on Saturday."
The preseason has been a bit of a mixed bag for Orlando City, but that's the reason these matches are played in advance of the regular season; Heath and Co. want to get as many kinks ironed out as they can before points are on the line in the MLS standings, and the club's last friendly against Toronto gives the impression that things are moving in the right direction.
After an academic warm-up against Eastern Florida State College on Feb. 7, OCSC fell 2-1 at Jacksonville Armada on Feb. 13, but Heath felt good about his team's showing despite the result. The opposite proved true on Feb. 17 after a 3-2 win vs. New York Red Bulls at ChampionsGate, when Heath was highly critical of his team's "poor, poor" performance despite the victory.
But the 2-1 win against TFC on Feb. 21 provided a glimpse of what the Lions hope to see much more of once the regular season gets underway: Kaká getting the ball high up the pitch in dangerous positions and a rejuvenated Kevin Molino having an impact in the midfield alongside the Brazilian.
Molino and Kaká flashed the same kind of link-up play that they did early in 2015, and the Captain netted a second-half brace to secure the win thanks to an assist from Molino on the first goal and Molino drawing a foul in the box to set up goal No. 2 from the spot for No. 10.
"The second half was very good against Toronto," Heath said. "We [looked] a little bit more like what we think we're going to be. Before that, I think we'd been a little bit sloppy and it's something that we've got to snap out of pretty quickly because we're nearly there now."
Saturday's match, against a Bahia team that finished ninth in the Brazilian Série B last season, will provide a nice platform to put the finishing touches on the preseason with the Lions also still holding a card up their sleeve in the form of the impending arrival of newly acquired midfielder Antonio Nocerino. A win on the scoreboard is not paramount, as it is still a preseason match, but with this being OCSC's last preseason match the emphasis on sharpness and execution will be greater than it has been to this point.
It's Orlando City's final dress rehearsal, and Heath will be expecting good things from his squad.
"We'll need to step it up," Heath said, "and Saturday will be a perfect time for us to actually start to really bed down some of the things that we've been trying to do all preseason."