The third time was a charm for Orlando City against defending Eastern Conference regular season champion D.C. United. After playing well but failing to get a result in two previous meetings, the Lions scored a first-half goal off a penalty kick rebound and held on for a 1-0 win in front of 30,054 fans at the Orlando Citrus Bowl.
The victory runs Orlando’s unbeaten streak to five games and marks the first time the club has won consecutive matches as an MLS team. City moved to third in the Eastern Conference table, a point ahead of Toronto FC and four behind second-place New England.
“I’m not sure we would have seen that through about five or six weeks ago but I think that’s a measure of how far we’ve come as a group,” Head Coach Adrian Heath said after the match. “At one-nil you’re never certain you’re going to win the game, especially against a team that never gives in.”
Roster change necessitated by international duty for Darwin Ceren and Cyle Larin led to a bit of a formation change, as Orlando City (5-5-5, 20 points) came out with a 4-4-2 look, with Kaká and Pedro Ribeiro playing forward of Brek Shea, Lewis Neal, Cristian Higuita and Eric Avila in midfield. The starting back four remained the same as the Chicago lineup, and Tally Hall manned the goal. Tactically, Heath had Shea and Avila playing more narrowly, widening the outside channels for Luke Boden and Rafael Ramos.
Orlando drew first blood in the 30th minute, after Bill Hamid had just denied Ribeiro’s spinning shot in the box with a diving save. As the Brazilian went to track down the rebound, D.C. defender Taylor Kemp inexplicably came leaping into him, prompting a penalty call from referee Jose Carlos Rivero.
Kaká took the spot kick, but left it too close to Hamid, who parried it right back to the captain. Kaká calmly nodded the rebound into the net to make it 1-0 in favor of the Lions.
The captain had a solid half, testing Hamid from long range 24 minutes in and forcing a diving save. Hamid could only parry the shot but no one in purple could get onto the rebound.
D.C. (8-5-4, 28 points) mustered few good chances in the first half, but Jairo Arrieta crushed a shot from 20 yards out just above the center of the box that Hall had to palm down. United had a couple of late opportunities when Sean St. Ledger lost sight of a ball over the top and it bounced over Hall. St. Ledger recovered, conceding a late corner. The Lions cleared the cross but Nick DeLeon’s try from distance was deflected out for a second corner. Orlando cleared again and took the 1-0 lead into the half.
The Lions were out-shot 5-4 in the first 45 minutes but got all four on frame, while only Arrieta’s first-half blast was on target. Orlando held a 55.7%-44.3% possession advantage in the first half.
Neither team found the net after the break, but both teams mustered some quality chances. Ribeiro’s header off an Avila cross went just over the bar in the first minute of the second half. Likewise, a United defender headed over the bar on a D.C. corner in the 59th.
D.C. pushed numbers forward as the game wore on, but their crosses and long passes resulted mostly in half chances, which the resolute Orlando back line kept clearing. Fabian Espindola had an opportunity down the left side in the 62nd minute, but his shot was wide. Conor Doyle was similarly wide in the 82nd minute with United’s last quality goal-scoring chance, and probably their best.
“I’m pleased for the players, pleased for the supporters and I’m pleased we keep this run going,” Heath said.
As accurate as Orlando was in the first half, the Lions didn’t get a shot on target in the second 45 minutes, out-shooting D.C. 12-11 for the game, and holding a 4-2 edge in shots on goal. For the game, City held a 55.6%-44.4% advantage in possession.
The Lions play a U.S. Open Cup match at the Charleston Battery at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday. They’ll be back in MLS action at Montreal on June 20.