With the top seed out of Group A on the line, Orlando City and the Philadelphia Union will battle it out when the two sides take the field on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN & TUDN) in the group stage finale of the MLS is Back Tournament.
Both clubs are perfect in this tournament, each with wins over New York City FC and Inter Miami, with Orlando holding the edge on goal differential. If the Lions finish atop Group A, which they would do with simply a draw, they would meet the second place team from from Group B (currently New England Revolution) in the Round of 16. If Philadelphia wins, that would lead to a matchup against one of the top third place finishers from Groups C, D, or E.
In addition to tournament implications, valuable regular season points are still be up for grabs in this contest.
The Lions are currently 2-1-1 with seven points to sit third in the Eastern Conference stnadings.
Orlando City is coming off its most impressive victory in the tournament yet after coasting to a 3-1 victory over NYCFC thanks to a pair of early goals from Chris Mueller, with Tesho Akindele providing a late insurance goal to seal the deal and push the Lions into the knockout stage.
Next up, a Philadelphia team that has matched the Lions in terms of presence in Orlando, establishing themselves as one of the tournament favorites after, similarly, winning both of their first two games.
“The group has been training normally, obviously with the joy of the last two games,” head coach Oscar Pareja noted on Friday during a Zoom conference with reporters. “The group has been concentrated on the things we have done well but also the things we need to improve, knowing that the next match is very important as well. The objective to keep adding points to the season, at the same time having the opportunity to do the next step for what is coming in the tournament.”
Fitness has been at the center of attention throughout the opening stage of this tournament, with teams playing their first games in four months — and doing that during the summer in Florida doesn’t make the task any easier.
Pareja has gone with the same starting lineup in each of the first two games, leading into some thought that he could rotate some fresher legs into the starting lineup with an eye on the knockout stages, in which teams with better levels of fitness will have a large upper-hand.
Pareja was asked on Friday if we’ll see some of that rotation, specifically with opportunities going to some of the younger players on the roster that could benefit from the important-game experience.
“We see it as a whole group we will put a team there that is going to compete for the points where we play,” he said. “Some of the guys here haven’t had much action during the last two games, where we go with the same squad we see always this group was a club that is going to be represented. The youngsters, though, they’re doing an excellent job and they’re growing a lot. Hopefully we can give them an opportunity soon, because that’s that’s one of our projects here too, is provide them an opportunity to be seen and and be part of the games.”
The match at hand would provide a valuable experience.
Philadelphia has been one of the best teams in the tournament under the guidance of Jim Curtin. The Union are dangerous throughout the field, including in the middle of the park, where up-and-comer Brenden Aaronson roams. The 19-year-old is turning into a star for the Union and has been flexing his skills so far in Orlando.
“Jim has done a great job with Philadelphia and the last season was very strong for them. I’ve know Jim for two years, and I know about his capacity and also his respect for the game and his professionalism. I don’t have any doubt that he transmits that to his players,” Pareja said.
“We saw them in the last couple closely, more than last year but I think the most challenging things for them is probably the organization that they have, as a group, and also they have energy because they are a young group too and that we’ll need to be faced with the same level of energy, with the same level of concentration and we know about that. So, we’ll see. It’s going to be a good match.”
For more Orlando soccer news, follow the Soccer Journal on Twitter: @OSJSoccer