Adrian Heath and Orlando City may have some long history together, but for current Lions coach Oscar Pareja, that’s not going to matter when Minnesota United and Orlando meet Thursday night (8 p.m. on ESPN2/Deportes) in the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament.
It’s the fourth time Heath, who was the head coach at Orlando for nearly six years, will meet his former club, but this time there’s a lot more at stake in a very familiar setting.
Heath won the 2014 USL regular-season championship with the Lions at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the same venue where MLS’s return-to-play tournament is currently taking place.
But the longtime Orlando coach was sacked midway through the 2016 season and eventually signed with Minnesota ahead of its 2017 inaugural MLS season.
Despite the Thursday’s game having somewhat of a Heath subplot, for Oscar Pareja, the matchup is just like any other.
“I just see it as another game that represents a lot for everyone,” said Pareja. “There is no past and there is no future, it’s just this one game and we’re going to make sure that we’re there, that’s our responsibility. Other than that, the stories behind or around, I know it’s part of the game, but I’m not going to look at it [like that].”
Orlando City is currently unbeaten in the MLS is Back Tournament, upsetting tournament favorites LAFC last Friday in the quarterfinals to extend their unbeaten run to five games.
Orlando City is one win away from competing in their first final of a competition in their MLS era.
For Tesho Akindele, he knows there’s a lot on the line for a club that’s struggled since entering the top flight.
“I think there’s definitely a lot at stake,” said Akindele. “I mean, especially for newer teams, Orlando obviously, we haven’t made the playoffs before, haven’t won these trophies before as an MLS team, so I think this is a great opportunity for us to win a trophy. The fans want this as bad as they want any other trophy.”
Akindele continued: “And we look at it, just like we would look at any other trophy as well… there’s a chance to get into CONCACAF Champions League, which opens a ton of new doors for next year. So I think the pressure is high, there’s a lot on the line, and it’s not just like we’re playing some tournament for fun right now. We understand that there’s a lot on the line for us and there’s a lot on the line for the fans because they’re cooped up in their houses too and they want to see us win, they want to see us put a good product on the field and we’re hoping to deliver.”
Chris Mueller and Robin Jansson look to be clear from injury heading into Thursday’s semifinal match against Minnesota, Pareja confirmed Monday with reporters.
Both players left the game in the 45th minute and 80th minute, respectively, for an apparent shoulder and lower-body injuries.
Despite that, the Orlando coach assured mostly everyone will be made available for selection against the Loons.
“We’re fine, the players yesterday were in the training ground, and we went in obviously monitoring them every day just to make sure that we have them for,” said Pareja. “At the moment, everybody’s looking sharp except for [Dom Dwyer], we have still three days more up to the competition, but so far we’re available”
As for Dwyer, the forward left the MLS bubble last week for an MRI on his left knee, and most recently underwent surgery on that same knee for a partially torn patella tendon, which will sideline Dwyer for at least four to six months.
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