While the omission of Nani and Dom Dwyer from Orlando City SC's starting XI on Saturday caught many off guard, Lions coach James O'Connor said after Week 1's 2-2 draw against New York City FC that he pushed both a bit longer than he expected.
Dwyer and Nani entered on either side of 69 minutes and shortly after combined down the left to set up Tesho Akindele's 75th-minute equalizer.
"I didn’t envision the two lads getting the minutes that they did, but I knew in the back of my mind if we needed a goal, or we needed to change the game, them two were going to go on," O'Connor said. "They both deserve a lot of credit because they’ve not done a lot of training."
Nani had only been with the club two weeks and, despite having been playing at Sporting CP in Portugal before, hadn't been stretched in preseason since his official unveiling for Orlando, O'Connor said. And after a quadriceps injury early in camp, Dwyer had not seen a single minute of preseason action.
While Dwyer's injury was known, getting a read on Orlando's Week 1 lineup was a bit more difficult because the Lions' last action of the preseason was a closed-door exhibition against Minnesota United last weekend.
From the sound of things, both could still be looking at a substitute role in a visit to the Chicago Fire in Week 2.
"It’ll take a bit of time," O'Connor said. "We’ve had some good conversations about where they both think they are physically. They’re both experienced players. When you’re speaking to them, you try to get a gauge of how they’re feeling as well and what they’re comfortable with."
Orlando trailed 2-0 at halftime before Chris Mueller pulled a goal back on a free kick that curled past several potential redirects on its way into the net.
Even so, the Lions had dominated long stretches of play in the opening 45 minutes only to be knocked back by Ebenezer Ofori's brilliant strike and a stylish assist from Alexandru Mitrita to create a second for New York City FC.
That made O'Connor feel bringing on his star duo was worth the risk.
"We always felt, even at 2-0 down, that we could go and win the game because candidly, when you look at the players and the supporters, we felt that if we got one goal, the supporters would really lift the roof," O'Connor said. "We were camped in their half. We were making it very difficult for them to get anything off on our goal."