National Writer: Charles Boehm

Orlando City must walk a psychological tightrope in Nashville SC playoffs clash

Orlando City SC have spent the past two weeks preparing to battle Nashville SC in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs at Nissan Stadium on Tuesday night (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes). But at times it feels as if they’re still coming to grips with the last time these two clubs met, three weeks ago in central Florida.

You know. That one.

It was nearly half an hour into the press conference at that point, but head coach Oscar Pareja finally addressed the elephant in the room – at least from OCSC’s perspective: The goal in the dying seconds of that wild 1-1 draw at Exploria Stadium on Halloween, disallowed for a foul call on Daryl Dike, a hugely controversial decision from the officiating crew that reverberated around MLS.

“They say that it was a foul and it wasn't, and everybody saw that too,” said Pareja in the Lions’ postseason media availability last week. “I think it was a terrible call that I won't forget from [referee Allen] Chapman – and I can keep going. I still have that in my heart. And at the end of the game, they were saying that that was fair, and that wasn't. I understand that there is a competition and what is black is black and when it isn't, it isn't. And then we felt very, very hurt.”

The Lions felt viciously hard done by, considering themselves robbed of a win and two points that, they would probably argue, eventually helped railroad them into the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference bracket and a trip to Music City instead of a first-round home date. Now, this rematch with NSC seems to have torn the scab off their efforts to move on.

“It was an injustice, and that [conclusion] was approved by Nashville, too, at the end [of the game],” continued Pareja. “It’s fine. We're going to Nashville because we want to win. And they have to beat us there if they want to continue. We respect every team, but we can’t forget that. So we’ll see. We’ll see.”

This narrative holds both power and peril for Orlando, as a veteran hand like “Papi” surely knows well. Coaches and teams scour for motivation in all sorts of places, to extents that us normies outside the locker room might find ludicrous.

One need only to look at how the US men’s national team weaponized a single Guillermo Ochoa interview with TUDN to supercharge their performance in the 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Mexico during the November international window. Or how Sporting KC found inspirational umbrage in a single euphoric line from Vancouver Whitecaps coach Vanni Sartini in the immediate aftermath of his side’s unlikely qualification for the postseason.

But this is a tightrope the Lions are walking. If Pareja can stoke his squad’s anger in the right way, it could endow them with hellish fury on the pitch in Nashville, and beyond. If he dwells excessively on what’s past, he risks fostering a dangerous and counterproductive sense of victimhood. Some of his own players have acknowledged as much.

“I think it's not good for us thinking about this,” said playmaker Mauricio Pereyra when asked about the potential for inflicting some payback on the Boys in Gold. “This is already in the past and we need to look forward and just put our mind in the playoff situation, knowing that this is a really important moment for the team … I think we deserve a little more in that game, but we cannot stay in the past.”

As many have observed, Nashville and their sturdy defensive organization have been literally unbeatable at Nissan this season, the league’s only undefeated side on home turf (8W-0L-9D record). But with NSC’s tendency to give up early goals, nine of those 17 matches on the Cumberland River’s east bank were draws, including two against Orlando, which gives the Lions belief that they can survive and advance on Tuesday.

“This is a playoff game. We are on that mode, we know any game is a final for us,” said Nani, the star man who will be key to the visitors’ hopes. “We have to do our best and playing home [or away] for us doesn't make any difference. We just need to trust in ourselves and be at our best, and we know we have our chances.”

The Lions have also been more than decent in knockout situations. Their wild, marathon Round One win over NYCFC via penalty-kick shootout last year was the stuff of legend, and they thrived at the MLS is Back Tournament, advancing to the final before a tense 2-1 loss to Portland.

“We are so excited to play this game,” said influential central midfielder Junior Urso. “This is a really important game for us, because last year we go into some finals – in the bubble we were in the final. So for us it is a really nice target to get our confidence, so we try to play well against Nashville. We know they don't lose this season at home, but we will try to get the victory over there because we have a good team and the mentality is always same: Try to put the Lion on the top.”

If OCSC and their supporters are looking for a rallying cry, that’s a pretty decent one from the Brazilian.