When it came to the U.S. Open Cup, James O’Connor and Orlando City SC rolled the dice and lost. The new manager put out a strong lineup against the Philadelphia Union, which is to be commended. The only problem was that six of the players that started Wednesday night also started last Saturday’s victory over Toronto FC (seven if you count Earl Edwards Jr.).
Furthermore, players like Chris Mueller, Sacha Kljestan, and Dom Dwyer (when fit) have been mainstays in the squad all season, and have started numerous games, with some of those games coming on short weeks. The mileage on those legs showed on Wednesday night. After the Lions fell behind early the team couldn’t do many threatening things when on the attack. When it looked like an opportunity might be on the way, a pass or a touch was often too sloppy and the chance went untaken.
There was always a chance that the quarterfinal game might play out exactly the way it did. It can be difficult competing on multiple fronts, Toronto FC’s doomed Concacaf Champions League campaign is a good example of that. If Orlando had won Wednesday’s game then fans likely wouldn’t be distraught if the Lions were to go up to Columbus and drop points. With the way the MLS season has gone, there isn’t anything wrong with trying to throw the kitchen sink at a cup competition. But when you push all your chips into the center and lose, that’s when the debt collectors come calling.
The immediate reality that Orlando now faces is that the team has a game tomorrow on the road against the fourth-place Columbus Crew. The Crew are currently only eight points above the Lions, but also have a full week of rest compared to Orlando’s two days. Playing on the road is never easy, but playing on the road during a short week with players that very much seem to be feeling the mileage on their legs is downright difficult.
Following the Columbus match, Orlando has games against New York City FC, LA Galaxy, and the New England Revolution, who sit second in the East, fourth in the West, and fifth in the East, respectively. The season is over halfway done and if the Lions want to break the drought of not making the playoffs then they need to keep getting points. The schedule will become more forgiving in terms of days between games with the U.S. Open Cup no longer a concern, but this game against Columbus has the potential to get ugly. Indeed, if not for Earl Edwards Jr. bailing the team out on numerous occasions, the scoreline against Philadelphia could have been much more lopsided.
However, a good result tomorrow is possible. Columbus is a good but beatable team, having won just once in its last eight matches. The Crew have some good wins on their resume but also some puzzling losses to teams they probably would have been expected to beat. I’m not writing the Lions off tomorrow and neither should you. Wednesday’s game aside, I thought the first two matches under O’Connor showed an improved Lions side, even if the final scoreline against LAFC didn’t reflect that belief. But make no mistake, this game will be a hell of a lot tougher than it would have been had Orlando fielded a rotated squad earlier in the week.
This isn’t meant to be a fiery criticism of the decision to play a strong yet tired lineup on Wednesday. In fact, I’m very happy O’Connor decided to place so much emphasis on the U.S. Open Cup, as I would have loved to see Orlando make a deep run in the competition. I’m just trying to provide a clear picture of what the Lions are now up against tomorrow. If the team can manage to take all three points, or even play well and get a draw, I think it would be an extremely impressive result and a sign of better things to come. It won’t be easy, but nothing with this beautifully frustrating team ever is. Vamos Orlando.