Orlando City came into Decision Day playing for its playoff life and praying for a chance to host for a second year in a row. The Lions did their jobs, with a strong 2-0 win on the road against CF Montreal, but the rest of the chips fell the wrong way, eliminating the hope of an Exploria Stadium playoff game in 2021 (unless multiple things go their way in the first round). Without a doubt, hosting again to start its playoff run would’ve been the best-case scenario for Orlando City on the final day of the regular season, but the final playoff bracket is still a point of optimism and is a very good consolation prize.
The Lions finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, setting up a match-up in Nashville in the first round. That is not an easy task for any team. Nashville SC was one of the best teams in the league most of the season and was just the seventh team in league history to go undefeated at home.
However, playing in the Music City might be the best road trip Orlando could’ve gotten in the first round. While Nashville was unbeaten at home, it drew more times than it won (nine draws vs. eight wins). Orlando City has played well in Nashville this season, with two impressive draws, plus what should’ve been a win in the final home game of the year. Compare that to the other potential first-round opponents (Philadelphia, New York City FC, and Atlanta) and it feels even more gettable.
Orlando City didn’t beat NYCFC in either match-up, including a really bad 5-0 loss with a heavily rotated side, and lost once each to both Atlanta and Philadelphia in its most recent match-ups — both on the road. On top of that, Nashville’s Nissan Stadium is a much better spot to travel to than the turf field and huge crowd in Atlanta or the awful terribleness that is Yankee Stadium as a soccer venue.
If you’ll allow me to look big picture for a second — a dangerous game, I know — the way the rest of the bracket sets up is also favorable. If the Lions get past Nashville, they face the winner of Philadelphia and the New York Red Bulls. Orlando has played well against the Union the last two years, and a match against the Red Bulls would be at home, though they have been a bogey team for Orlando this year. In this scenario, Orlando avoids New England, NYCFC, and Atlanta until a potential conference final (which also means it avoids the nasty surfaces in at least two of those venues).
There is no easy path in the playoffs. Every team in the field is good and the single-elimination format makes every game equal parts intense and flukey. It takes a lot of luck and a lot of quality to make a run in this tournament, and Orlando might have gotten a fair bit of luck from the jump. The Lions are capable of beating the top two teams on their side of the bracket and get the luxury of playing on decent fields along the way until at least the conference final. If there were such a thing as an easy path as a road team (there isn’t), Orlando found it. Now we’ll see if the team can deliver the deep postseason run we haven’t seen since the USL days.