Oscar Pareja - Orlando City - August 5 - sideline

Orlando City's commitment, Nani's brilliance leads Lions | Charles Boehm

Your MLS is Back Tournament final is set: Lions vs. Timbers.

On Thursday, Orlando City SC punched their ticket with a composed 3-1 defeat of a rugged, committed Minnesota United side that simply couldn’t find their range in front of goal. Here’s a few observations on how the Floridians held off the Loons.

Composure and “compromiso”

There’s a zen quality to this Orlando team that we need to delve into off the top.

Much like they did in their quarterfinal domination of San Jose, Minnesota pushed their lines forward to reduce space and press them right from the opening whistle. It made sense considering how committed the Lions have been to proactive possession and building from the back under Oscar Pareja – that methodical approach can quickly turn into a high-wire act when you’ve got hungry, aggressive opponents in your face.

Yet Orlando kept calm and collected even as the Loons snapped at their heels, connecting passes and keeping their shape, even under heavy pressure deep in their own end. Recall when goalkeeper Pedro Gallese treated us to a high-risk skillcheck in his own goalmouth before a quarter of an hour had passed:

It’s ironic, then, that the opening goal came from a precise long ball from Robin Jansson to Nani, but also indicative at how carefully Orlando had studied how to move Minnesota around and find seams to tear open.

Pareja has an occasional habit of using the word “compromise” when speaking to the media in English, but I think the polyglot Colombian means it in the context of the Spanish compromiso, or commitment, and that’s clearly a theme of his work with the Lions, who have very quickly cottoned on to what their coach wants them to be in tactical terms and embraced it.

“I want to recognize the players who have respected our way despite the pressure that Minnesota applied,” he said on Thursday. “We wanted to play and we played. We knew where the spaces would be and we took advantage of them. That’s why you have to have personality and they did, even in the toughest moments of the game when Minnesota were pressuring us and sent everyone forward. The team had character to continue to possess the ball and you have to highlight that.”

An ode to Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha

Sometimes Designated Players are recruited to turn heads and sell tickets and jerseys; sometimes they possess an elite level of key qualities like goal-scoring or playmaking. Often it’s some combination of both. But there’s something else that many true stars bring: The type of confidence, competitiveness and clutch mentality that’s required on the game’s biggest stages.

Nani has all that, lots of it. And after showing the full extent of his gifts only in flashes and spurts last season, he’s bringing it every moment, game for Orlando, with massive swagger – and to hear Pareja tell it, in every practice as well.

“It is great to have players who take that responsibility and put the weight in their shoulders, and appear in the games that mean the most for us,” said the coach after his Portuguese DP’s two-goal, man-of-the-match performance against Minnesota. “He has been in these scenarios before. The thing that I want you all to know is that he is training every single day like a rookie coming into the league, and we all respect that from Luis.

“This leadership in the moments when we need it the most and he appears is what makes him a different player in his career,” Pareja added later in Spanish. “And it makes me happy to see him now as if he’s a little kid who wants to keep winning. He has objectives and he wants to keep looking forward. These are the players the league needs.”

The Loons did a lot right

A glance at Loons Twitter suggests that some MNUFC fans may have some gripes about Adrian Heath’s lineup choices and substitution tendencies, and it was telling that the Midwesterners were unable to direct a shot on goal until the 75th minute, despite uncorking 17 of them on the night.

That said, I don’t think Heath’s game plan deserves too much of a shellacking here. This was a close-run match that hinged on two moments of brilliance from a multi-million-dollar superstar and European champion exploiting the smallest of openings against a 22-year-old in his second season as a pro (Hassani Dotson). 3-1 was a flattering scoreline!

Minnesota set out to be assertive and combative and largely succeeded, forcing Orlando to execute their own plan with a high degree of technical precision.

It’s easy to say in hindsight that the Loons needed more creativity or verticality on the pitch from the start. Maybe Mason Toye or Aaron Schoenfeld or Raheem Edwards should get more run than they have lately. But I’m betting that Kevin Molino’s hamstring wasn’t ready for extended minutes and Romain Metanire’s injury-imposed absence punches a fundamental hole in their preferred attacking patterns. And Luis Amarilla is pretty obviously not at full speed right now, which left the Loons blunt at the tip of the spear in a big moment.

Heath has said repeatedly that he wants to bring in reinforcements as soon as possible and the previous paragraph points to why. A bit more menace in the final third and Minnesota are serious MLS Cup contenders. So surely we can all retire the underdog talking points now, right???

(Heath won’t, but that’s part of who he is, and who he is is working pretty well for his club, so keep cooking, Inchy.)

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