Former Orlando City midfielder Kevin Molino and the Lions’ first-ever head coach, Adrian Heath, are set to return to play at Disney. The duo was part of the 2014 Orlando City team that played all its home games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex during the USL days. Now, Heath and Molino return, albeit repping different colors, along with former MLS Lion Jose Aja.
That 2014 Orlando City team lost in the quarterfinals of the USL playoffs. While the playoffs ended in disappointment that year, the Lions dominated the regular season. Orlando finished first in the league, with a record of 19-4-5, 62 points with three games in hand.
Fast forward to this year, and Orlando is undefeated in the MLS is Back Tournament. However, it has not been the easiest of roads. Aside from a 3-1 win over New York City FC, each game has been decided by one goal or has needed penalties to decide the outcome. Orlando used goals after the 90th minute in two matches on its way to the semifinals and kept only one clean sheet.
Minnesota has also not had an easy road to the semis. In its first match, an own goal in the 92nd minute and a 97th-minute goal from Molino stole a win from eventual group winners Sporting Kansas City. Minnesota drew its next three matches but used an emphatic 4-1 win over San Jose to advance to the semifinals.
In what is expected to be a close match, here are Orlando’s three keys to advancing to the final:
Strong Back Five Play
Orlando City’s back five — goalkeeper Pedro Gallese and defenders Joao Moutinho, Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, and Ruan — have been stellar this tournament. The Lions have yet to give up multiple goals in a game. While the attack has not been finding the back of the net often enough, the defense has stepped up and really pushed the team along. The best part is that every game someone else steps up.
Minnesota United does not have one player to watch out for. While there are some very talented players on the team, anybody can be a threat on this Minnesota team. Carlos said at Monday’s press conference that the team is confident in what it has been doing in the tournament and can apply that against Minnesota.
“We believe in ourselves,” said Carlos through an interpreter. “We believe that we can be compact, and we can stop good attacking teams. I believe we have been doing that, and so far, I believe that we proved that we don’t have to change much.”
The high press has been one of the reasons for Orlando’s success this season. Starting from the front, the Lions put the opposition under pressure and win the ball back in dangerous positions.
Using this press is going to be a vital factor for Orlando. The players may be starting to get more fatigued a few weeks into the tournament, which could affect the high press, especially after a physical match last week. Tesho Akindele credited the coaching staff for pushing the team during the quarantine for Orlando’s energy, physicality, and ability to high press, and Carlos said the forwards are the first line of defense for the Lions.
“It’s really a collective work,” Carlos said. “Beginning up top with players like Nani and Tesho, midfielders doing their job. It starts up front, so they are marking the opponents, and they are breaking those balls, so it’s not as clear for the opponents when it gets to us. And so it’s a collective work, really.”
Akindele had a breakout season in 2019. With Dom Dwyer injured, Tesho has had to step back up into the starting role. However, he has yet to hit top form in the MLS is Back Tournament. Akindele scored the game-winner against the Montreal Impact and the third goal against NYCFC but has been relatively quiet otherwise. The Canadian has been active off the ball, but he needs to put the ball into the back of the net in a semifinal match. Forwards are ultimately judged on their goals. The Canadian needs to be active in front of the net on Thursday if Orlando is going to come away as a finalist.