Speaking after the 2-1 loss, the Portuguese winger reflected on the Lions’ progress under head coach Oscar Pareja. Compared to when he signed a Designated Player deal ahead of the 2019 campaign, there’s an entirely different vibe around the club. They’re not a completed project, but the steps forward are readily apparent.
“We learned we are a better team at this moment,” Nani said when asked about Orlando’s growth. “We improved as a group, as a club and let’s be honest, we must accept we are not the same team as before. And you all know that. You all saw our games, you have seen this final, you’ve seen the way we’ve been playing and the way every team who plays against us behaves against us.
“So let’s be honest with our team. We know we are a team who needs to improve a little more, but at this moment I’m so happy to be on this team with this coach and with this staff. Because we showed – we took these two months to improve and we did it. And my hope to our fans and all the people who trusted us the first day – I hope they’re proud of us because from today we just can be better. And to every team in MLS now who will face us, they know they will face a strong team and the respect will be there on the field”
Nani and his teammates were thwarted by Portland’s low block, which allowed Orlando to hold nearly 64 percent of possession. Ultimately, the Lions fell one game short of gaining automatic entry to the 2021 Concacaf Champions League and the $300,000 prize pool for the winning club.
They landed just one shot on target as Mauricio Pereyra brushed home a low Nani cross in the 39th minute. That leveled the match at 1-1 heading into halftime, but otherwise Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark was rarely threatened. Despite the end result, Nani still felt that on balance his team was the better one on the night.
"Unlucky we didn’t get this one," he said. "But everyone saw what we did and everyone saw our quality of football. And everyone saw who was better on the field."
Slowly but surely, Pareja feels Orlando is starting to gain more respect, at least internally when it comes to buy-in. He was only hired last December, and had two regular-season matches before arriving for the tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
“That’s for you and other people to determine it,” Pareja said in Spanish when asked about respect around MLS. “For us we have an immense respect for ourselves and for our supporters and this project. And we hope that this gets bigger and magnifies as we achieve objectives. Today we are in a final and we’re sad because we didn’t win it because we could’ve won it.
“We’ll push forward and hopefully get the respect from the opponents, the people and the fans who before may have seen Orlando as a smaller team, today see us as a very competitive team. Because I think that’s the reality. We’re a competitive team and we’re here because no one gifted us or the players anything.”
As Orlando topped Group A and advanced through the Knockout Stage, it was often Nani, Pereyra and Chris Mueller providing the incisive play. But those proved elusive against Portland, and the absence of a game-changing No. 9 loomed large with nearly two weeks passing since Dom Dwyer had knee surgery (4-6 month recovery).
The lack of final-third solutions can also be attributed to Portland’s gameplan, with the Timbers often content with absorbing pressure under head coach Giovanni Savarese. When that’s the case, they seize their moments like when center backs Dario Zuparic and Larrys Mabiala knocked home set pieces on either side of halftime.
“I think you have to give credit to a team who has it clear,” Pareja said of the Timbers' commitment to their gameplan. “They lowered the block and we couldn’t break it. Well, we need to improve on that part because if you have that possession and you have that amount of time with the ball, then we want to be dangerous. Obviously, today it was a challenge, it was many defenders in the line of the 18 yards and that created problems.”