After officially claiming a postseason berth for a second successive campaign, Nashville SC will set their sights on maintaining second place in the Eastern Conference when they travel to the magical kingdom to face Orlando City on Sunday at Exploria Stadium.
The Boys in Gold put six goals past FC Cincinnati on Wednesday, the most they have scored in an MLS encounter as they now hold a two-point cushion for second, while the Lions comeback came up just short in midweek, dropping a 3-2 decision to the Columbus Crew.
We are getting down to decision day in Major League Soccer as Orlando wrap up their regular-season home campaign with a massive encounter against a side that they have only beaten once in five matches against them.
On Wednesday, Orlando seemed to be feeling the pressure, as they did not look loose, and the defending MLS Cup champs made them pay, taking the lead in the 20th minute, a goal that seemed to knock the stuffing out of the Lions.
They were able to make a game of it in the second half and keep the game close, but in the end, it looked like they were trying too hard to make the perfect play rather than being intelligent with the ball, and as a result, Orlando are now fifth in the table with two games remaining.
This is not what Oscar Pareja had envisioned from his side who had put themselves in an excellent position to qualify for the playoffs, kicking off this month with back-to-back wins, but they have not done themselves any favours in recent weeks, dropping four points from winning positions against CF Montreal and the New England Revolution before falling short versus the Crew.
While dropping those points did not help Orlando, their postseason destiny is in their hands as they are four points above the playoff bar coming into this matchup on Sunday, so if they can take care of business, they will be OK.
The most encouraging sign for this team is that even though the results have not gone their way over the past three games, they are not being dominated like last month, and their top goalscoring threats are starting to produce.
A matchup with last-place Cincinnati came at the perfect time for Nashville who went into that encounter without a victory in six straight contests, their longest winless run in franchise history.
While scoring six goals is great many would put an asterisk beside that simply because of their opponents, who are by no means a difficult backline to break down.
In any event, Gary Smith has his team back into second position and guaranteed a postseason berth, becoming only the fourth team in the MLS expansion era to make the playoffs in consecutive campaigns, with the other sides being Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC and the Seattle Sounders.
Playing a side like Cincy afforded Nashville the freedom to attack more often, but it seems that the Boys in Gold forgot about their responsibilities coming back, allowing five shots on target and conceding three times, the most that they have allowed in a match all season and only the second time an opponent have put that many past them in their brief time in MLS.
This team have given up the opening goal in three straight encounters, conceding four first-half goals in their previous two games, three of which came before the match was 20 minutes old.
Nashville have usually reacted well when trailing, although they have struggled to maintain advantages this year against the Lions, playing to a 1-1 draw against them in August despite scoring the opener and squandering a two-goal lead versus Orlando in late September in a match that ended 2-2.
Due to the concussion protocol, Uri Rosell was kept out of the lineup on Wednesday, while the team could be missing Raul Aguilera, Adam Grinwis, Joao Moutinho and Rio Hope-Gund this weekend, all of whom are questionable with lower-body injuries.
Daryl Dike scored his eighth of the season earlier this week, matching his total from a year ago, while Robin Jansson picked up his third strike of the campaign deep into stoppage time and Tesho Akindele notched his sixth assist of the year, putting him just one back of Nani and Mauricio Pereyra, who are tied for first with seven.
Jansson set a club record for most all-time minutes by an outfield player with 7,693, surpassing Cristian Higuita, who held the previous record at 7,692.
Nashville all-star defender Walker Zimmerman had a multipoint night for his side on Wednesday, scoring his third goal of the season and picking up his second assist, while Randall Leal notched his first brace of the year to go along with two helpers and CJ Sapong scored a pair of goals as well for the third time this season.
Hany Mukhtar returned from his one-game suspension to pick up three assists as he continues to make a strong case as to why he deserves to be the MLS MVP and Ake Loba scored his first goal of the season on Wednesday.
Orlando City possible starting lineup:
Gallese; Smith, Jansson, Carlos, Ruan; DeZart, Michel; Nani, Akindele, Mueller; Dike
Nashville SC possible starting lineup:
Willis; Maher, Romney, Zimmerman, Johnston; Leal, Godoy, Washington, Muyl; Muhktar; Sapong
We say: Orlando City 1-1 Nashville SC
These are two sides who defend well and rarely allow a lot of space to their opponents, so expect to see a very tight game between two well-drilled and organized teams.
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