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Orlando City is ready to erase the memory of its only loss of the season when the team hosts the New York Red Bulls in a rematch on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The last time the teams faced off, the Red Bulls grabbed a surprising 2-1 victory after the Lions had roared to a six-game unbeaten start to the season.
That loss reflected an out-of-character performance for the Lions. Coach Oscar Pareja said he felt his game plan was mismanaged and didn’t think his lineup was aggressive enough to properly expose the Red Bulls. In the rematch, the coach said he won’t make the same mistake.
Although the loss weighed heavily on the Lions in the moment, the team feels it’s already learned from the mistakes of that game.
“I feel like the script has already been flipped,” forward Benji Michel said. “We lost to Red Bulls and now we’re on a three-game winning streak. Now we’re able to play Red Bulls at home and show them that they got the best of us last time, but this time it’s ours.”
The Lions launch into this weekend after a much-needed week of rest. The team played three matches in seven days last week, bringing nine points home after a road win against in-state rival Miami last Friday.
Those three wins propelled Orlando City into the second spot in the Eastern Conference table, bringing the team within two points of overtaking the New England Revolution with a game in hand.
But although the Lions are eager to take the top spot in the conference, they’re equally focused on staying levelheaded during midseason success.
“It definitely helps, but we need to make sure that we’re not too confident,” defender Michael Halliday said. “We need to keep pushing.”
Despite the team’s success, the heavy schedule took its toll on Orlando City. Injuries continue to hound the Lions, who have struggled to field a healthy roster for several weeks.
Right back Ruan will not play this weekend and left back João Moutinho is unlikely to play after undergoing an MRI to examine pain in his adductor following off-season hip surgery.
Players throughout the team picked up knocks throughout last week, with Nani, Júnior Urso and Antonio Carlos playing through pain.
The return of Rodrigo Schlegel from Argentina will help the defense to remain balanced after rookie Halliday took on the starting position last week.
Lions fans are also eagerly looking to a return from striker Alexandre Pato, especially as striker Daryl Dike prepares to depart for the Concacaf Gold Cup immediately after Saturday’s match.
“He is in the last phase,” Pareja said. “We are thinking that maybe in a week or two, he’ll be available for selection. We don’t want to jeopardize his recovery at the end. That’s why we won’t have him this weekend.”
For the Lions, the biggest difference this weekend will be off the pitch and in the stands. Saturday’s game is the first weekend Orlando City match opened at full capacity for supporters since the onset of the pandemic.
The Lions welcomed back full capacity a week ago Tuesday against San Jose, but the combination of the midweek timing and a deluge of rain limited the crowd to 15,476.
On Saturday, the club expects to fill close to its 25,500 total capacity for the first time in over a year. The team is eager to perform in front of this size of crowd.
“I think we all agree that we missed the fans so much,” Pareja said. “The sport without them, it does not mean the same. Having our fans in the stadium is an increase of energy for the players; it’s a joy that the game brings to the whole community. We’re excited to have our fans in the stadium. ... I can’t wait to be there again in our place in front of our people competing.”