It’s amazing how much better a game feels when your team wins.
After a five-game stretch with no wins, Orlando City (8-6-5, 29 points) got a crucial road win in Jason Kreis’ second return to Real Salt Lake (5-12-2, 17 points) — and first with Orlando. The game was pretty even until Will Johnson powered in a rebound for a 17th-minute goal. What ensued was an all out defensive performance from the Lions.
The game reminded me a lot of Orlando’s first game of the season against NYCFC, where the Lions got the lead early and just held on for dear life for most of the match.
RSL had plenty of shots and the bulk of possession (61%), but at the end of the day, the Royals just didn’t have what it took to break through the rigid Orlando City defense. Perhaps the stat that sums up the game is RSL’s two shots on target from 11 attempts.
Kreis made four changes from the lineup that came out flat against the Chicago Fire, dropping Tommy Redding, Luis Gil, and PC, with Carlos Rivas missing out due to injury. The Lions played a lopsided 4-4-2 with Cyle Larin and Giles Barnes up front, though Barnes shifted out wide for a lot of the game. In midfield, from left to right, were Kaká, Cristian Higuita, Antonio Nocerino, and Johnson. The back line consisted of Donny Toia, Jose Aja, Jonathan Spector, and Scott Sutter, with Joe Bendik in his customary role in goal.
From the get-go, RSL was on the offensive, primarily attacking down the right wing. While the hosts were getting up the field quite effectively, they weren’t able to carve out any good shooting opportunities.
Orlando City’s first real chance came in the 17th minute off a long free kick which was won by Kaká after he was pulled down by Chris Wingert. Kaká sent a magnificent ball to the back post, which led to a powerful header by Aja that left the crossbar vibrating. The ball then bounced out slowly and fell to the feet of former RSL man Johnson, who rattled it in for the first and only goal of the night and Will’s second of the year. David Horst threw himself in front of the onrushing Johnson, but could only get a touch on the ball which deflected it into the top of the net.
After the goal, RSL had a small surge of chances which amounted to nothing. In the 21st minute, Higuita turned over the ball to Brooks Lennon — a dangerous man on the wing all night — who then sent a tempting ball across the face of goal. Joao Plata was the closest to the ball, after losing Sutter, but luckily he couldn’t get a foot on it. In the 25th minute, there was a free kick for RSL, which after bouncing off a few players, ended up finding Lennon, but he judged the ball wrong and whiffed on it.
As the game went on, Orlando City sat deeper and deeper just as RSL threw more and more players into the attack. It was great to see how Orlando City stayed compact the entire match. You couldn’t really say that RSL’s attack was that weak, it was just that Orlando’s defense was too organized and didn’t allow the Royals any space in the box, which is why they had to settle for bad shots.
As mentioned before, Orlando didn’t have many chances, but the Lions did have one in the 35th minute, when Barnes cut in from the right and fired a long shot straight at Nick Rimando. Then, from about the 36th to 40th minutes, RSL had a few of its best chances. The first one came from a Lennon cross, which went to Jefferson Savarino, who laid it off for Plata, but it ended up in a fairly simple save for Bendik. After that, they had two quick opportunities from Plata and Lennon getting to the byline and trying to square it, but Orlando’s defense stayed tight and dealt with the threat well.
In the 45th minute, Savarino had RSL’s best chance on a shot right outside of the 18 that swerved and caused an awkward save from Bendik, who fought it off for a corner.
The second half was more of the same from RSL except the hosts kept getting braver; it also saw Servando Carrasco come in for Nocerino due to an inflamed right hamstring. At one point late in the half, it seemed as if RSL was playing two in the back with almost everybody in Orlando’s half.
In the 53rd minute, Luis Silva got into the box and was one on one with Spector, but Johnson hustled back to poke it away. RSL then had a great chance to tie it up in the 63rd minute, after Savarino chested a ball down to Silva who was one on one with Bendik. I’m sure every Lions fan can agree that while that moment did evoke lots of nerves, you trusted that Bendik would take care of it. Bendik not only took care of it — as he has on so many occasions — he rushed in confidently and forcefully sent the ball back where it came from.
That was RSL’s last good chance, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The hosts pushed their whole team forward and made three offensive substitutions, yet they couldn’t even force Bendik to make one of the heroic saves we are so used to seeing from him. The 71st minute saw Kaká come off for Luis Gil. The Brazilian was likely taken off because of their midweek game with Toronto FC, but he did not look happy at all, walking directly into the locker room immediately without even acknowledging Kreis.
After a silly challenge from behind by Higuita in the 76th minute, Plata hit a low free kick which came dangerously close, but missed just wide to the left. Later on, in the 87th minute, Higuita picked up a yellow card for hitting an RSL player in the face. He will not be available for Orlando’s midweek clash with Toronto FC. He subsequently came off and was replaced by Richie Laryea. It was Laryea’s second appearance for the team and he made it count too by getting a shot off at Rimando’s near post in the 92nd minute.
The game ended 1-0, with Orlando City leaving with a well-deserved three points. The Lions will return home on Wednesday to face Toronto FC at 7:30 p.m.