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3 things we learned from Orlando City’s win over the Chicago Fire

 Orlando City forward Benji Michel, right, gets a hug from forward Silvester van der Water after scoring a goal against the Chicago Fire during the second half of an MLS soccer match on Aug. 21, 2021, in Orlando. (John Raoux/AP)

Homegrown players step up

Saturday’s win highlighted the balance Orlando City aims to strike between international stars and local talent.

With top stars such as Pedro Gallese, Mauricio Pereyra and Sebas Méndez sidelined, the Lions needed their younger core to produce — and that’s exactly what they did.

Benji Michel — a third-year homegrown player and product of the Lions academy — scored the game-winning goal. This was Michel’s fourth goal of the season, placing him behind only Nani in scoring on the season.

Orlando City goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar blocks a shot by the Chicago Fire during the first half of an MLS soccer match on Aug. 21, 2021, in Orlando. (John Raoux/AP)
Homegrown keeper Mason Stajduhar made five saves on the night, recording his most cohesive performance since stepping up as the Lions’ starter in lieu of Gallese last month. The 23-year-old bought in fully each time he came off his line, which allowed him to still make plays even when he took risks with challenges in the box.

Fellow academy product Raul Aguilera also made his MLS debut in the 85th minute. Although the midfielder only logged a handful of minutes, his participation in the match continued the balance the team has been trying to strike between current success and future growth.
Coach Oscar Pareja often emphasizes that the only way to develop younger players is to play them. Providing young homegrown players with opportunities in critical matches like Saturday’s will help this team to continue its development long past this season.

Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele, left, grabs Chicago Fire defender Francisco Calvo as they try to get possession of the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer match on Aug. 21, 2021, in Orlando. (John Raoux/AP)
Akindele’s pressure remains essential
The Lions’ best chance — and ultimately their only goal — in the match came as the product of a long series of pressures from striker Tesho Akindele.

With fellow strikers Pato and Daryl Dike injured, Akindele’s presence as the foremost forward on the pitch has been essential this season. His three goals and five assists have been the steady production the team needs from a non-designated player striker.
But one of Akindele’s most important roles on the team is leading the high press. This job often goes without a clear payoff, but the striker helps to make opposing backlines uncomfortable, and on Saturday his dispossession of Chicago centerback Mauricio Pineda gave forward Michel a wide-open lane to goal.

“It was really important for the team because obviously the forwards, they trigger the pressing cue,” Michel said. “So Tesho running his butt off being able to press like that, it just helps the team a lot. Once he triggers the pressing, then we’re all just on the same page and going, going, going.”

Orlando player Nani heads the ball toward the goal during the Inter Miami at Orlando City Soccer match at Exploria Stadium in Orlando on Aug. 4, 2021. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Injuries continue to concern
Orlando City picked up four points in two games last week despite one of the lengthiest injury reports of coach Pareja’s tenure with the team.

The Lions are currently missing starting keeper Gallese; midfielders Uri Rosell, Pereyra and Méndez; and forwards Dike and Pato.
Captain Luis Nani attempted to play through an injury — which Pareja described as “muscle tightness” — in Saturday’s match but exited in pain within the first half-hour.
This blight of injuries began in midsummer amid Concacaf and Conmebol tournaments, yet the Lions still managed to hold onto their second-place spot in the Eastern Conference table coming out of the past three months.

Consistent performances from backups like Stajduhar and defensive midfielder Joey DeZart are critical to helping the Lions through this process. Their ability to fill in has helped the Lions to maintain their positioning, but it will also help Pareja and his staff to stay patient in the process of easing critical starters back into the lineup rather than rushing their recovery.

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