Orlando City SC are back in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs again for the second season running, another signpost of progress under head coach Oscar Pareja and no small feat given the club’s five years of futility upon arrival in MLS.
But they still managed to do it the hard way.
The Lions’ recurring propensity for drama over the years has earned them the nickname “Cardiac Cats,” and they’re living up to it. By missing their chance to clinch qualification at home vs. Nashville SC last weekend – a contentious 1-1 affair marked by a controversial disallowed late Orlando winner that infuriated the Lions to no end – they forced themselves to get a result in distant, chilly Quebec, where CF Montréal could have booked their own postseason place with a win.
The plot thickened when their talisman Nani was named among the substitutes at Stade Saputo and winger Chris Mueller, who will depart the club for Scotland’s Hibernian after playing out his contract, was left off the season-defining trip entirely.
If you bet your money on the Lions weathering Montréal’s early storm of pressure and shaking off a 1.8-0.6 expected-goals deficit en route to a 2-0 road win via a Sebas Mendez worldie from distance, well… your hefty payout should tell you how rare that point of view was.
“It has been difficult with what just happened against Nashville. And this week, the boys forgot about it and then got through it,” Pareja told reporters postgame. “We understand that this is part of the game and this is part of our job. And today we were much focused on just playing the game and doing our job there on the field.
“It has been really emotional time for us this month, when we had opportunities to clinch at home and we couldn't – and playing well, and deserving much more, but we couldn't execute it. Today, I think it's a retribution from all that effort.”
Asked about the bigger significance of this qualification during a pitchside postgame television interview, Pareja contended that “it means that the club is growing,” and booking it also required a measure of personal and collective growth at the tail of what he called “a very difficult season.”
While many outside observers sympathized with Video Review wiping out Andres Perea’s would-be winner against NSC, Orlando had to set aside any lingering feelings of victimization in order to handle their mission to Canada.
“Obviously last weekend's events were going to be disputed, whichever side you were,” said Mendez, whose stunning 55th-minute knuckler is his first goal of the season. “So moving forward, we knew in this game we had to do absolutely everything that we could to get ourselves into a position to advance – and they had to do that as well. So we knew that we were going to come into a game that was going to be hotly contested. So we came in with everything we had, and now we’re in the playoffs, ready to move forward.”
It certainly helped that the fortune that seemed to desert Orlando last week turned up wearing purple in Montréal. CFM saw two goals disallowed, one a clear offside call on Sunusi Ibrahim, the other a much, much tighter-looking decision against Romell Quioto – and the luckless Sunusi somehow scuffed his lines on a point-blank tap-in in the first half.
“It is important to see the character of the players once they have these difficult events, as we had against Nashville with the officiating. Right now, the concentration is back,” said Pareja, pointing to the psychological facets of the sport’s human element.
“And the effort, the professionalism today from the boys, it just gives them that victory. It’s given us a good momentum to get into the playoffs. We will have time to prepare again. But it was really important today to keep our composure and our emotional part collectively stable, and we did it.”
The Lions’ reward for holding their nerve? A rematch with that same Nashville side in the playoffs’ Round One, this time at Nissan Stadium, where the Boys in Gold have been very tough to beat. Orlando are the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed, while Nashville are the No. 3 team.
For OCSC, though, the postseason mindset is already in place.
“With the game we played, I think it's playoff time for Orlando again,” said Pareja. “We are proud of the club, of the effort, of the fans and the way the club is going. But we knew that clinching to the playoffs is a very important step for us. And I want to give credit to these guys today. They were phenomenal, the boys are great. We're proud to coach them.”