If you thought Orlando City had finally seen the last of Nashville SC in the Lions’ final home game of 2021, think again. The two teams will play for a fourth and final time in the first round of the playoffs a little under two weeks from now.
So far, the three clashes between the teams have resulted in three draws. This time around though, someone has to advance whether it takes extra time or penalties, and that means there will need to be some big performances from the men in purple if OCSC is going to get through to the next round. Here are my choices for three guys who need to have a big game if Orlando City wants to advance. I should say up top that I don’t mean to imply these are the three most important players in this one, simply that these are three Lions who need to have a major impact on the proceedings.
Whoever Plays Left Back
A big question coming into this game for Orlando is who we’ll see on the left side of defense. Lately, its been Emmanuel Mas, as Joao Moutinho has not played since being substituted off at halftime of the 2-2 draw with New England. Mas has filled in ably for Moutinho, but not having the 23-year-old’s crossing ability and threat from set pieces would be a blow. Regardless of which one is in the starting XI, a big part of their job will be silencing Hany Mukhtar. Mukhtar has lately been deployed as the right-sided forward in Nashville’s 5-3-2 and with 16 goals and 12 assists in 31 league games, he’s terrorized plenty of defenders he’s come up against. In fact, it was his 53rd-minute goal which pegged Orlando back when the teams last met at Exploria Stadium. Mas got caught upfield when OCSC turned the ball over near midfield, Robin Jansson had to slide over to cover the space the left back vacated, and Mukhtar slipped into the ensuing pocket of space and slotted past Pedro Gallese at the far post. Whoever gets the start in Tennessee is going to have their hands full, and a strong, assured display will be necessary to prevent a repeat of Mukhtar’s equalizer.
Urso is another player who will have a vastly important job when Orlando doesn’t have the ball. He will be asked to take the leading role in disrupting Nashville’s midfield of Randall Leal, Anibal Godoy, and Alex Muyl — particularly when play moves through Leal, who has been excellent, with eight goals and nine assists. He’ll also be the first line of defense (along with Sebas Mendez) against CJ Sapong, who has 12 goals and five assists this season and seems to terrorize the Lions damn near every time he plays them. If Urso can be at his energetic and disruptive best in the center of the park, he’ll hopefully be able to slow down and clog things in the middle of the field. Winning the ball back in the midfield third and progressing it to OCSC’s attacking players will be vastly important in a game where Orlando likely won’t have the majority of possession on the road. The Lions will need a big performance from their Bear in this one.
At his worst, Ruan can be a little on the...frustrating side to watch. Electric pace combined with an ability to get past most defenders in the league is paired with a final ball that has often been a bit lacking in terms of quality. When he’s playing well though, he’s an absolute gamebreaker. His ability to both get into the attack and rapidly provide cover when the defense is stretched is hugely important, and the extra danger he can provide down the right side of the field can often overwhelm teams. The run and pass he made to create the opportunity for Daryl Dike’s dagger against Montreal last week was simply superb.
The Brazilian uses his pace to split a couple defenders while sucking a third out of position, and then plays an inch perfect ball into the exact space where it needed to be for Dike to run onto it and create a chance at goal. Plays like that are exactly what Orlando is going to need in this game. These two teams have literally played each other as close as possible during their three meetings this year, and it may end up taking something special to give the Lions the edge in this fourth and final meeting. Ruan is a unique weapon for OCSC, and if we see the best version of him on Nov. 23, then it could bode very well for the good guys.
Those are the three guys I believe need to have excellent performances if Orlando is going to pull the upset in Tennessee. What are your thoughts? Be sure to have your say down in the comments, and Vamos Orlando!