Orlando City can settle bragging rights with Inter Miami for 2021 on Friday as the Lions host their in-state rival for the final time this season.
The Lions hold the advantage entering the match. They won the teams’ first meeting in Fort Lauderdale 3-2 back in June, but settled for a 1-1 draw in a rematch in Orlando last month.
When the teams face off on Friday — kicking off at 8:30 p.m. ET with a live broadcast on ESPN — both will have a chance for the final say in the series for this season.
The match comes at a critical point of the season as Inter Miami looks to ride a midseason wave of momentum into a playoff spot.
“They found a structure that helps them be more consistent,” coach Oscar Pareja said. “They have had some production of some key players that have been raising the level, and they have gotten those good results. I always respect that from any team. It’s not easy to win in this league.”
While Orlando City is currently vying to cut the lead between Eastern Conference leader New England and its current position at second in the table, Inter Miami needs to cut a five-point deficit to pull itself up into playoff position in the next 13 games.
Inter Miami sparked a midseason turnaround in July, and the team has only lost one of its last seven games. The team’s improved offense has been particularly bolstered by young striker Robbie Robinson and veteran Rodolfo Pizarro, who scored a combined five goals in the team’s last two games.
The Lions will likely face this improved Miami offense with backup keeper Mason Stajduhar as starter Pedro Gallese continues to recover from an injury.
Although Gallese did start in the MLS All-Star match on Wednesday, he played limited minutes in the exhibition match and didn’t participate in the Skills Challenge earlier in the week. Pareja said Gallese and fellow All-Star Luis Nani — who is also carrying an injury — trained with the team in Orlando on Thursday, but both remain questionable for Friday night.
Stajduhar recorded his first career shutout last weekend in a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire, the team’s first shutout since a June 22 blowout of San Jose.
“Everyone put it in a shift in that game,” Stajduhar said. “The back four were incredible making clearances and blocking shots. The guys in front of me were crucial at that, without them, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Although Nani and Gallese remain questionable, Orlando City is beginning to return its top stars from injury.
Striker Pato and midfielders Sebas Méndez and Andrés Perea are unlikely to play Friday, but all three returned to training individually on the sideline this week.
Meanwhile, Daryl Dike and Mauricio Pereyra both trained fully with the team throughout the week and could return to the pitch again for Friday’s match.
This could help the Lions to kick-start their offense — they’ve only scored one goal in their last five games.
While the return of Dike and Pereyra could help the team return to the attacking side of its game, the Lions’ defense remains the key to remaining at the top of the conference.
“We just need to keep building off of this,” Stajduhar said. “I think if we could finish some more chances on the other side, I think that’ll take a little bit more pressure off the back. But if we keep doing our job back there, I think that’s also very important.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Julia Poe at email@example.com.