The fixture list had not been kind to Orlando City the last few weeks. In the lead-up to the current international break, the Lions had to face five straight playoff contenders while fighting for their own playoff lives. After a three-game losing streak, Orlando battled back for a huge draw in Nashville and a heroic win over D.C. United to cling onto fourth place in the Eastern Conference. With six games left to play, the Lions sit three points above the playoff line with the same number of games played as the four sides below them. Every game from here on out is massive, especially the easy ones.
I don’t want to make it sound like Orlando’s remaining schedule is easier than the most recent stretch. The Lions have four matches remaining against teams above the line and still have to host the top two sides in the Eastern Conference — Nashville and New England — plus they have two bouts with playoff hopefuls CF Montreal. One of those is at home and the season finale is at Montreal. However, they also get a game against cellar dweller FC Cincinnati and a game against the disappointing Columbus Crew. Those two match-ups in particular are crucial for Orlando’s playoff hopes.
This is one of the most competitive sprints to the finish in Major League Soccer history. Philadelphia, Orlando, New York City FC, D.C., Montreal, and Atlanta are all within three points of each other, but one of them will be left out. The Lions have one of the toughest schedules of the bunch, making the ‘easier’ games that much more important.
FC Cincinnati has been bad. That is not news. Even with a seemingly improved team, a third-straight wooden spoon is looking increasingly likely. When Orlando pays another visit to the land of Skyline Chili, it is an absolute must win — something the Lions have yet to accomplish at FC Cincinnati, going 0-0-2 in southwest Ohio. At this point in the season, dropping points could be a killer. If the Lions draw, or even lose, against Cincy, then those games against Nashville and New England are that much more daunting. Winning against struggling opponents gives some wiggle room later on. Orlando has proven it can get results against New England and Nashville at home in the past, but I’d much rather those games be the difference between hosting the playoffs rather than just making it to the big dance.
Orlando City controls its own destiny from here on out. If it takes care of business, another playoff game, maybe even in Exploria Stadium, is coming. After all the negativity in midsummer, the Lions are healthier and starting to round into their best form in months. The “Cardiac Cats” moniker is back in full swing after back-to-back late goals. Maintaining that form, especially after an international break, is the goal and it’s achievable, but it’ll require some serious focus. The big games against MLS Cup contenders are the big draws, but all six games are equally important. At this point, it’s just about getting as many points as possible. Orlando can’t afford to let either Cincinnati or Columbus steal a result. The stakes are just too high. There’s a chance another team in this race implodes, rendering all of this moot, but if Orlando handles its business and beats the teams it’s supposed to beat, a second-straight playoff run is in sight.