Orlando City has come a long way over the last 12 months. From turning around their league-worst defense in 2018 to among the best in the league to making their first-ever run to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, the Lions have taken major steps in 2019 towards rebuilding the club both on and off the field.
Tuesday night’s Open Cup elimination to Atlanta United was an opportunity to be a watershed moment for the club — and though it may still prove to be but just reaching this point — but the 2-0 scoreline showed the Lions are still on the outside looking in when it comes to competing for trophies.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who joined the club prior to the 2018 season, sees the tide turning within Orlando City and believes the team will be able to use this Open Cup run as a valuable experience for many of the guys in the locker room and the team collectively as it continues to build.
“I think we dug deep on a few of these games you know,” said Kljestan. “When we played NYCFC that was a gut punch to give up a goal in the last second but we reacted well and ended up winning the game in penalties. The game against New England also an overtime game, so it was a good journey for us.
“And I think we learned a lot about ourselves and also we used some rotation in those games,” he added. “A lot of guys who maybe aren’t regular performers ended up being big players in the Open Cup for us, so I think we gotta draw confidence from that and we have got to know that this can not derail our season.”
While Tuesday’s loss against Atlanta was disappointing, Kljestan believes it could serve as an opportunity to spur the Lions to a run heading into the final 10 games of the regular season.
“We cannot let this game linger for weeks because the next game is huge,” he said. “We go to Toronto and we are very close with them in the playoff line so a big game coming up sometimes is a little silver lining when you get knocked out of the Cup is that you are playing midweek and then a few days later you’ve got to bounce back so like I said, we can’t let this derail us, we got to be stronger now.”
Kljestan later added that the Lions are still learning to be a winning team, trying to mold a habit that ultimately becomes part of the culture.
“We’re not there yet but we’ve made strides and I think that Atlanta has that having been through MLS Cup already last season and lifted a trophy,” said Kljestan. “Perhaps we maybe got a little bit, I don’t know, stage fright or nerves tonight when some of our guys may be played in a big game for the first time so yeah, it’s getting better.”
Head coach James O’Connor echoed a similar statement, suggesting “the moment seemed to get to us.”
“I don’t know if it was nerves or just a little bit of general tiredness,” he said. “We just looked a little bit sluggish and I don’t know whether that was the emotion of the occasion seemed to get to us.”
While this may have been the Lions’ biggest game of the season to this point, and arguably one of the biggest in their short MLS history, the Lions will surely get their chance on the big stage against soon as the team continues to battle for an Eastern Conference playoff spot this season.
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