It was a struggle towards the end, but Orlando City ultimately accomplished its goal of qualifying for the playoffs in back-to-back years. This is a level of success unprecedented in the club’s MLS history and is laying a strong foundation for the Luiz Muzzi and Oscar Pareja era. Even if Orlando were to lose its opening round match against Nashville SC, this season would still be a moderate success. But in the wacky world of the MLS Cup playoffs, any team has a shot at a title, and Orlando City can certainly make a run. If that were to happen, though, the Lions will need their stars to deliver.
If Orlando is going to make a run, it needs Nani and Mauricio Pereyra to make plays. Those are the leaders, the Designated Players. Orlando has a talented all-around team, but there are points in playoff games where you need a match winner to step up and make a play. Columbus got that from Lucas Zelarayan last season, and the likes of Raul Ruidiaz in Seattle and Gustavo Bou in New England have created those magical, game-winning moments in big games. Orlando’s big money players have the ability to break a game, but the last few months haven’t inspired a lot of confidence that they will.
Nani is on a now expected, late season cold spell and finished the season with a knock. The captain has just three goal contributions since the start of September, though he does have some quality performances even without much end product. Pereyra’s been equally unproductive in that time as well, with just two assists since September. While it’s true that both players have made an impact beyond goal contributions, they need to deliver match-winning moments in the playoffs. I don’t know if either can do that, and I don’t think they will. But that doesn’t mean Orlando doesn’t have somebody who can break a game.
Over the last few months of the season, Orlando’s brightest young star absolutely delivered. Daryl Dike closed the regular season on a heater, scoring seven goals in his last nine games, including the game-sealing final goal in Montreal. After the Gold Cup and a brief injury, Dike has been one of the best players in the league and that quality has manifested itself into match-winning moments. He’s not the type of player who can make something out of nothing or orchestrate an entire team, but he is the type of player who can take advantage of his opportunities and makes sure Orlando is always a threat going forward.
In last year’s playoff run, the play of high-end players is what decided Orlando’s fate. Against the Revolution, Nani missed a penalty and Pereyra lost his head and got sent off, while New England’s stars shined, with two Bou goals and a goal and assist from Carles Gil. The Revolution’s best players delivered and Orlando’s didn’t, and that was it for the club’s first postseason and second ever MLS playoff match. If the Lions have any hope of going on a run this year, potentially even exceeding last year, then they need those gamebreaking players to play their best in the biggest games. We’ll see if they can deliver.