Orlando City finished a brutal stretch of three matches in seven days with a rivalry match Friday night in South Florida. The Lions had dispatched Toronto FC and the San Jose Earthquakes — the latter in a twice-delayed and rain-soaked affair Tuesday night. With little energy left in their legs, it was a tall task to go on the road and beat an emotionally charged Inter Miami team that was playing with a recent tragedy in their community on their minds.
But the lads in purple found a way to dig deep, even after falling behind in the final half hour, and got the job done. Chris Mueller and Nani provided just enough magic to get over the finish line in an exhausting week and left the Lions to a 2-1 win at Miami — their first road victory in the Tropic Thunder series.
Let’s take a look at what went into that.
Lions Showed Mental Toughness
This Orlando City side showed what it’s made of at Miami. It would have been easy for a team playing its third match in a week to capitulate after going down a goal in the late stages of the second half on the road. But the Lions refused to do that and they didn’t settle for a draw once Mueller had tied the match. Orlando kept coming, winning a couple of set pieces and throwing bodies around in the box, looking for the winner. Both Nani and Mueller said after the game that getting the win was important because of the large number of fans who drove down to South Florida to attend the match. The whole team showed that on the field despite their tired legs.
Nani is in Impeccable Form
Orlando City’s 34-year-old captain wasn’t at his best for the entire match, but he still found two moments of quality that turned the game completely around. Nani played 245 minutes this week. He’d played 234 of those minutes when he latched onto a gorgeous long ball from Robin Jansson and sent it perfectly into Chris Mueller’s path with his first touch. He’d played 241 minutes on the week when he split two defenders with a rocket of a shot that he placed perfectly in the far, upper corner of the net. He’d tried a couple similar attempts earlier in the game and wasn’t able to pull them off. But with the game on the line, the captain’s mental fortitude, desire to win, and outstanding form came together at the right time.
Nani amassed three goals and three assists this past week and he had at least one direct goal involvement in each of the three matches. In just eight appearances in 2021, he has already equaled his six-goal output from his 19 matches a year ago.
Midfielder Junior Urso didn’t look like his usual, energetic self in this match. That’s to be expected. Urso covers a lot of ground and at age 32, it’s a lot to ask of the Brazilian to play three games in a week. But with Sebas Mendez away and Uri Rosell not yet 90-minute match fit, Urso was once again tasked with partnering with Andres Perea in central midfield. Although Urso did a lot of things well, he was visibly gassed before the end of the first half. He was second-quickest to several balls that he’d normally win and he made some uncharacteristically sloppy passes even when not under pressure. Finally, Urso’s mind could no longer will his body to do the things he needed to do. Shortly before Miami’s goal, he hesitated on a simple pass from Jansson, allowing the opposition to run past him and pick it off. Moments later, he was unable to stay with Gonzalo Higuain and left him enough space to smash a hard, low shot just inside the left post for the opener. Oscar Pareja subbed off Urso 10 minutes later, but by then it was probably 20 minutes later than it should have been.
Papi Knows His Stuff
Despite leaving Urso in too long — and it’s hard to blame Pareja for that, given the roster’s current circumstances — Orlando City’s gaffer once again showed his mind for the game. Knowing his team needed fresh legs and a spark after a lifeless first half, Pareja wasted no time getting Mueller and Benji Michel on, subbing them at halftime for the ineffective Silvester van der Water and Mauricio Pereyra, who is nursing a minor knock that has obviously been hampering him. Those changes almost immediately turned the game in Orlando’s favor.
Higuain’s goal was against the run of play, as the Lions had the better of things in the second half. Pareja reads the game and uses his bench well. He’s a good tactician and great at keeping his players focused, which is why he quietly slipped past Adrian Heath on Orlando City’s all-time MLS win list on Friday, winning his 17th regular-season match in just 33 attempts. He hasn’t even coached the equivalent of a full MLS regular season yet and is only four wins away from catching Jason Kreis’ club record of 21 managerial wins in the regular season.
Michael Halliday looks like a player with a bright future after the last two matches. While his timing and crossing ability in the offensive end still need some polishing, the teenager went toe-to-toe with veteran Brek Shea and mostly kept him quiet. He won 60% of his duels and didn’t commit a foul despite being under a lot of pressure in the first half. Halliday finished with a tackle, an interception, and two clearances, and appears to be growing in confidence. With Ruan still out and Joao Moutinho apparently out again, it’s nice to see an academy product ready to step in and start learning on the job without being a liability.
Those are the five things that stood out to me in Orlando’s win at Miami. What did you notice?