The inaugural addition of the El Sunpassico (shoutout to Twitter for that one, and yes, that’s what I’m calling it until told otherwise) kicked off on Wednesday with the opening of the MLS is Back Tournament, and boy did it deliver.
After a quiet first half that saw both sides go into the halftime break with no goals and just three shots a piece, Inter Miami scored early in the second half before Orlando City countered with a pair of goals late to claim three points and plant their feet atop Group A on the first day of play.
Nani, who was playing his first professional game in nine months after being suspended for the first two games of the 2020 regular season earlier this year, proved to the national TV audience that even at 33 years old he’s still capable of changing games. The Portuguese winger notched an assist and game-winning goal for the Lions, capping a thrilling finish on the club’s first win of the season.
Let’s take a deeper look beyond the scoreline of this 2-1 result.
The Captain shines bright in the big moments
You need your big players to step up in big moments, and especially in a World Cup-style tournament like this, and the Lions got that from Nani in this one.
Though rather quiet and un-impactful in the first half, Nani came alive to make a bigger mark on the game in the second 45 minutes. He started early, but jumped out here, helping get Orlando City on the board in the 70th minute with this perfectly-placed back post cross in to Chris Mueller, who made an equally-impressive run on that far side.
(Separate note: props to Tesho Akindele as well for his role in that goal, dragging up the Miami centerback to create more space in the box near that back post for Mueller.)
Nani began to pick up steam in the 5-10 minutes just before that goal, finding himself in more one-on-one situations to create opportunities — and it culminated with this goal here.
And then in stoppage time, seconds away from coming off the field, Nani does this:
This goal is impressive for not only the collected finish but the awareness from the world-class vet. After dishing the ball in to Akindele, Nani pushes forward and creeps undetected right into an acre of open space not noticed by the Miami backline, and while the original cross in from Joao Moutinho sails over Nani’s head, he’s in the perfect spot to scoop up the rebound off the back of the Miami defender and tuck home that finish for his first goal of the season.
Something that should come off as very impressive about Nani is his overall resiliance as a player approaching his mid-30’s, playing professional soccer at a high level in one of the dumbest climates in the country, and being able to able to perform at a high level for 97 minutes and be an impact player for his team right through the end.
Orlando City signed Nani to a three-year deal early last year, and while that third year of the deal was always one of the more negative notes of the signing, Nani’s fitness and overall health has been impressive enough to this point that he’s proving a lot of people, including myself, wrong to that if he continues to perform physically and execute at this level for the Lions through the end of 2021, we’re going to be able to look back on his tenure here in Orlando as a success.
We are, of course, a long way from the end of this story, but it’s been off to a good start.
Now, back to the tactics, this was our first chance to see Nani playing under Oscar Pareja. We’re used to seeing the winger playing freely, roaming the park and fitting himself into situations as he sees fit, but that wasn’t necessarily the case in this matchup against Miami. He was relatively more tame, sticking primarily to the left side of the pitch, being a dribbler and a ball-mover from that side.
Orlando’s rarely ever playing at full strength, and that means they tend to have to lean on Nani to be a catalyst in the middle of the park, but with all three designated players on the field he didn’t have to be that. While that diminishes his overall impact, it prevents him from having to stretch himself thin across the field and he can be more explosive when he needs to be.
That’ll be interesting to watch as we continue to understand Orlando City’s style of play under Pareja.
Some other things of note
While the game wasn’t all too exciting early on, Orlando City controlled the game well through the first half hour, limiting Miami’s presence in the middle of the park and making things difficult for them play forward — Inter was forced to play more direct to Juan Agudelo and weren’t seeing a whole lot of impact from their wingers.
This is Miami’s passing chart through the first 30 minutes:
Through Uri Rosell and Junior Urso, the Lions were strong at defending in the middle of the park by closing passing lanes with numbers and pressuring Miami to play wide. Will Trapp and Victor Ulloa were limited and hardly played a factor for Miami early on.
That photo above illustrates Orlando’s numbers in the middle of the field, and notice the total lack of of white shirts in there as well.
Inter made changes at the first hydration break in the first half, however, pulling some help down into the midfield and seeing more access to that area of the field. That ultimately made them look like a different club throughout the rest of the night.
Miami’s lone goal on the night was not an example of class defending. Watch Ulloa start in the middle of that video as he makes an un-marked run right up the middle of Orlando’s defense to find himself in a great spot to receive and play the ball in to Agudelo, who also makes a strong push and run off the back shoulder of Antonio Carlos for the goal.
Carlos could have done more to defend against that cross…
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