Orlando City seek sharper edge against Nashville in Round One matchup

Whenever Orlando City SC and Nashville SC clash a hotly-contested battle follows, and when the Eastern Conference sides meet in Round One of the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs on Tuesday (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes) Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja expects much of the same.

Tuesday will mark the fourth time the Lions have played Nashville in 2021, with the previous three matches all ending in draws. One of the two is guaranteed to come out on top this time around, whether it's in regulation time or in penalty kicks, with Pareja telling reporters that he feels as though his team can prevail.

Nashville went unbeaten in their 17 home matches this season but settled for nine draws at Nissan Stadium. Now, Nashville's the No. 3 seed and Orlando's the No. 6 seed.

"We've overcome many challenges this year," Pareja said. "But you see the whole picture, I think overall we are proud, I think we are a team to compete with anyone in the league. So we're focusing on that one game against Nashville and players have been working hard. We're optimistic. We've had good games against them here and there, and we feel very competitive against them."

Orlando are coming off a 2-0 Decision Day triumph over CF Montréal that clinched their postseason spot. While it's been an up-and-down season at times for the Lions, executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi hopes positive vibes can carry over to the postseason.

"I think it's great, I think you see it all the time, especially in MLS, you see a team that catches that momentum and starts winning and you just start moving up and that carries you through the playoffs," Muzzi said. "It's good that we won that last game, the guys feel good about it, we feel like we've been playing good and that last game gave us that extra confidence heading into the playoffs."

Added Pareja: "Carrying that momentum is important. We hope we can go to Nashville with that commitment and that we can overcome that challenge, it's important to us."

That's going to be a challenge, though, given the layoff between Decision Day and playoffs starting. Orlando's 16-day break gives players time to rest and recharge, but they also grow antsy to compete again.

"It has been a challenge," Pareja said. "Since we have two months prior with a busy schedule, and not just a busy schedule, it was a very stressful one because every game was a must-win game so we can achieve this. The first thing I thought was just resting their mind a little, not just the body, to see if we can refresh the group.

"I have noticed this last week the break is too long because I can sense the players still with that desire to keep going and competing. I'm trying to measure it too. We still have five to six days before competition and it seems like our players didn't want to stop. As I said, I'm trying to measure the loads and get the right information."

As for how to approach Nashville, Orlando know they're facing one of MLS' most defensively sound teams, and one that took major strides in the attack this season after struggling to score consistently during their expansion campaign of 2020.

Nashville's defense is anchored by 2020 MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman, with MVP candidate Hany Mukhtar the focal point offensively coming off a fantastic 16-goal, 12-assist season.

"I think breaking their defense has been a challenge, we're looking for work, ideas, training on how we can do it," said Pareja. "At the same time, just try to control them. They have ability in transition and it's like any other team: How can you take advantage of their weaknesses, but at the same time, don't forget that there's a team that's prepared as well to hurt you and balance that all the team?

"So, be us, keep our faith in the things that we do, keep going with our solidness defensively is what gives you big things in big games. And then see if we can improve our production offensively, especially our forwards. That is an obvious answer but it's what the game is against Nashville or any team in the league."