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Nani is Still the X-Factor Orlando City Needs

The captain remains the difference maker for the Lions and don’t you forget it.

MLS: Inter Miami CF at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nani was the match winner in Orlando City’s 2-1 win over Inter Miami on Wednesday night. Not only did he score the winning goal deep in stoppage time, but he also provided the assist for Chris Mueller’s equalizer. The Portuguese winger’s performance provided a timely reminder of what exactly he brings to the table and how important those qualities are to Orlando City.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Nani didn’t have his usual level of involvement for much of Wednesday’s match. A big part of Miami’s tactics involved trying to man mark him out of the match, and he was rarely afforded much time or space when he was on the ball, especially during the first half before Miami’s legs began to tire. Regardless, he still had 68 touches on the night, which was good for third on the team behind Joao Moutinho and Uri Rosell. Of those 68 touches only 15 were in his own half and he also completed two dribbles, passed at a 77% rate, and took three shots on the night.

Aside from his goal and assist it wasn’t the most statistically dominant performance the captain has ever turned in while wearing an Orlando shirt. Even the match-winning goal was more a function of a lucky bounce and Nani simply being in the right place at the right time rather than a product of his own skill, although it did take a lot of composure to keep his head and slot the ball past Robles. Honestly, the fact that he didn’t dominate the stat sheet but still found a way to make the all-important difference in the game simply threw into sharper relief just how important Nani is to this team.

Take the Lions’ previous two games this season — a 0-0 draw at home against Real Salt Lake and a 2-1 loss on the road to the Colorado Rapids. In the loss to the Rapids the Lions took 13 shots and put five of them on target, completed six dribbles as a team, and had 45% of the ball. Against Real Salt Lake, OCSC took nine shots with two on target, completed 15 dribbles as a team, and had 50% of the ball. Those aren’t terrible statistics in either case, aside from only completing six dribbles against Colorado. Even there the Lions set up to play defensively on the road and only really came out of their shell after conceding in the 63rd minute, so the low number of successful dribbles isn’t entirely surprising. The stats from the first two games aren’t strikingly different from Wednesday's win other than possession. Orlando took 10 shots and put three on target, completed 10 dribbles as a team, and had 58% of the ball.

So, what does all this mean? My takeaway is that a major difference in the Lions getting their first win of the season was having Nani back on the field. Yes, he scored a goal and assisted on another, but it goes a little deeper than that. Part of the reason Chris Mueller was able to have such a good game (three shots with two on target, 97% passing rate, one completed dribble, and obviously a goal) is that Nani was attracting a huge amount of attention from the Miami defense, giving Mueller more time and space to operate in on the opposite wing.

He also still has the conditioning and quality required to be able to make an impact late in the game, something that is well worth mentioning considering he’s almost 34, and hadn’t played a competitive match since last October. But the captain clearly hasn’t been letting his fitness levels slip during the pandemic and, as the game wore on, the Miami players that did so well to stick to him like glue found it harder and harder to do so.

Not having Nani in those first two games of the season hurt Orlando immensely. Obviously the team missed his creativity and ability to score goals, but not having someone with his vast amount of experience and even his conditioning is a big deal when you’re in tight games like the two that OCSC played before Wednesday night. In games like that you need players who can make a couple big moments happen even if they’ve been quiet for almost the entirety of the match.

That’s exactly what Nani was able to do for Orlando City two nights ago, and it provided a clear reminder of just how important he is to this team.