When Orlando City takes the pitch on Saturday evening to face the San Jose Earthquakes, it will have been 20 days since the Lions played an MLS match. The league’s decision to break for the Copa América Centenario gave the Lions a chance to rest and recover at an opportune time, having just faced the three top teams in the Eastern Conference in the nine days leading up to the hiatus amid a slew of injuries to first-team starters.
The time off has given players a bit of a mid-season reprieve, allowing them to get away from the game for a bit and recharge their batteries in different ways. But it’s also given the squad a chance to smooth out some of its rough edges on the practice field following the rejuvenation period, which Head Coach Adrian Heath hopes will pay dividends when his team resumes league play with back-to-back big matches against San Jose on Saturday and then Toronto a week later.
Per Heath, the members of his side that have been healthy and available to train during the Copa break have put in a hell of an effort since getting back to work.
"We’ve had a good week," Heath said last Friday following training. "We’ve managed to sort of work on one or two things that we’ve been struggling on the last few weeks but the quality has been great. The attitude of the players is a little bit different when you know you’ve got nothing at the end of the week – sometimes guys can lose their intensity in training – but I’d have to say they worked really, really hard this week."
Orlando benefited from only have one player – Kaká – called up by his national side (although an injury knocked him out of the Copa), and the team has battled through the 90-degree Florida heat and the accompanying humidity with aplomb to maintain a high level of motivation in training, something that Heath noted was not the easiest thing to do without the payoff of a match at the weekend.
For players like Kaká, City’s 34-year-old captain, the time off has allowed for injury rehabilitation to take place without the usual missed games that come along with it. Although Ricky missed OCSC’s last match at NYCFC, his unfortunate injury at least took place prior to Brazil’s Copa opener when "muscle fatigue" (whatever that means) made him a scratch from the Seleção and at least gave him nearly 20 days to try and get right physically.
Darwin Cerén, who is approaching the end of what was predicted to be a 5-6 week absence due to a high-ankle sprain, will also hopefully be better off after the break, while Rafael Ramos has had extended time to rehab a hamstring injury suffered on May 21.
Despite the injury issues, which were especially prevalent in New York, the Lions managed to avoid a loss during the three-match gauntlet prior to the break, which Heath has used as a source of positivity despite his team missing chances to earn wins in those three draws.
"People forget that we had three games against the top three teams in the East, and we came through unscathed," Heath said. "I thought we should’ve won the game against Philly – if we had come through with seven points it would’ve been a terrific three games. I think we need to build on that now, we know that we’ve got the Open Cup [Wednesday], which is important, but the next two league games after that are going to be huge for us."
While the horrific events that occurred in Orlando last weekend – a tragedy that will make for a very emotional atmosphere at Saturday’s match – have marred recent days and put the game in its proper perspective in life’s grand scheme, the Lions have been able to make strides during their Copa América break.
Heath said he "sensed" a great deal of enthusiasm in the camp last week, so we will see on Saturday – in front of an #OrlandoUnited – if that carries over into an important stretch of league play.