Orlando City played well overall but offensive finishing continues to be an issue. The Lions’ lack of final product allowed Atlanta United to hang around and win the game, 1-0, on a late wonder strike from Hector Villalba in the 86th minute in front of a raucous crowd of 25,527 at Orlando City Stadium.
Villalba’s goal came out of nowhere off a throw-in to spoil what was otherwise a strong showing — even without the aforementioned offense — by the Lions. Orlando City (8-8-5, 29 points) missed a golden opportunity to jump ahead of expansion Atlanta (10-7-3, 33 points), despite out-firing the visitors by a 14-8 margin and looking like the better side much of the night.
“Obviously very disappointed with the result but this is one where I would say I’m really pleased with the performance,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the match. “This is the tough job about being a professional soccer coach is that nobody remembers the performance except for the coaching staff and the players. When you lose, you lose, so really disappointed to have lost this one, especially the way in which we lost it.”
It was a cagey first half with both teams getting a few decent chances but nothing clear cut. Orlando got a couple of near chances early with Carlos Rivas getting to the end line but losing the ball over the end line off a heavy touch two minutes in. Kaká had a nice cross into the box cut out in the sixth minute as the Lions probed for an early breakthrough.
Jonathan Spector returned the favor by cutting out a cross from Anton Walkes at the 15-minute mark. The first real shot came from Giles Barnes in the 17th minute but he hit his effort just wide. Three minutes later, Kaká’s cross for Barnes was cut out by desperate Atlanta defending. Jose Aja flicked a header wide off a corner at 22 minutes, as the Lions sought the game’s first goal.
Scott Sutter nearly found Barnes with a beautiful cross in the 25th minute off an equally lovely long ball from Aja, but a bit of last-ditch defending forced a corner kick. At 27 minutes, a nice give-and-go between Kaká and Barnes went unrewarded as the English-Jamaican’s pass for the captain was a tad off line and erased by Leandro Gonzalez Pirez.
A shot finally hit the target in the 32nd minute when Barnes fired from distance right at Brad Guzan, however, he ignored a good run from Rivas that could have had the Colombian in alone on goal. Four minutes later, Rivas got into the box and blasted a shot, but it was right at Guzan.
Meanwhile, Atlanta tried to make something happen in the offensive end with an endless series of flicks, dummies, and creative runs that didn’t quite come off, either by a pass off line or an offside call. The visitors weren’t missing those opportunities by much, showing why they’ve got one of the most prolific offenses in the league.
The Lions got their best chance of the half in the 39th minute when a long free kick from Kaká found Spector’s head. His flick on was kept out at the last second by a diving stop by Guzan. That almost came back to haunt Orlando at the 41-minute mark, when a horrific back pass by Will Johnson fell to Miguel Almiron. He wasn’t able to get his shot off and the follow by Yamil Asad was weakly hit at Joe Bendik. The half ended seconds after Bendik stopped Almiron’s shot from the top of the box.
Atlanta held most of the possession in the opening period, but Orlando held a 7-3 edge in shots (3-3 on target) and looked to be the more likely team to score.
The second half looked much like the first, with the exception of Orlando seeing more of the possession and Atlanta fashioning a few more shots off the counterattack. The Lions held 52.6% of the ball in the second period.
After a strong build-up by Barnes in the 55th minute, Donny Toia ran onto a bouncing ball, but his half-volley shot was delivered well off target from just above the box. Two minutes later, Rivas tried to turn the corner on Michael Parkhurst and sent in a cross that appeared to deflect off the Atlanta defender’s arm but shouts for a penalty went unheeded. Atlanta had their own penalty shout when Bendik came off his line and collided with Villalba in the box but referee Jose Carlos Rivero ruled that Joe got a touch and awarded a corner.
Guzan again robbed Spector in the 63rd minute on a long-range set piece. The Lions’ defender got his head to a well-placed delivery and got his shot on target but Guzan got down in time to make a sprawling save.
Second-half sub Brandon Vazquez forced a near-post save by Bendik in the 70th minute on a quick Atlanta counter. Two minutes later, Kreis sent on Cyle Larin, who had been playing with Canada 24 hours prior in Arizona, looking to steal the game late.
The introduction of Larin did seem to create some space for the Lions, with Cristian Higuita getting into the right side of the penalty area twice but his shots/crosses — whichever they were — were off the mark both times and the chances went wanting in the 73rd and 75th minutes.
In the 79th minute, you could cross off the free space on your Orlando City bingo card as Rivas launched one well over the net from at least 30 yards away. He nearly atoned at the 80-minute mark when he blew past Parkhurst, who pulled the Colombian down and took a booking rather than let Orlando spring the attack.
Almiron tried his luck from the top of the box in the 81st but hit his shot wide. It appeared to come off of Toia but a goal kick was awarded. Four minutes later, Bendik made a diving save to deny Almiron again as the visitors continued to look for chances off of quick counters whenever Orlando got numbers forward.
A minute after that, Villalba hit his stunner and silenced the crowd. Off a throw-in, Villalba found a pocket of space from about 30 yards out and decided to have a go. His strike was almost entirely unlike Rivas’ earlier effort, curling into the far upper 90 past Bendik’s outstretched hand.
“It came off of a throw-in, which we fell asleep for just one second. That one second will hurt you every time when you play against a quality team and quality players like Atlanta,” said Kreis.
The late goal was a body blow from which Orlando couldn’t recover, even after the introduction of Richie Laryea and Luis Gil in place of more defensive-minded midfielders. Kaká had a curling effort stopped by Guzan in the 87th minute and then hit the wall in the 90th on a set piece in a good area that Higuita won before being subbed off.
The last gasp for Orlando came in the 91st minute when Johnson found himself alone on the right side. With the defender closing in, he tried blasting it into the upper corner on the near post side but he missed his shot well off target.
“The guy was closing me down and obviously Brad’s a top goalkeeper so you have to try to get it in one of the corners, otherwise he’ll save it,” Johnson said. “I tried to go high to the near post to catch him off guard and I had him beat. Just the excitement got to me a little bit and I pushed it a little high and into our wonderful supporters’ section.”
Guzan got to a couple of crosses sent in toward Larin in the dying moments and the full-time whistle blew with the ball in the air after it was launched toward Atlanta’s penalty area.
The Lions are now winless in their last four at home (0-2-2), and despite playing better than before the break, got nothing to show for a good effort against one of the league’s most prolific offensive teams. But as long as this Orlando side continues to struggle to put the ball in the net, results will be hard to come by.
“For me it’s not so much about personnel at the moment,” Kreis said of his offense. “I think we’ve done a really good job of getting ourselves in and around the opponent’s penalty box. And then I think we’re getting the ball into some really dangerous spots. We’re talking a lot about trying to get the right number of players involved in our attacking movements and all the way into the penalty box. At the moment, we’ve got a lot of guys who are happy to hang around the top of the penalty box but not get themselves into the penalty box, and we’re going to need more options in there in order to score goals.”
“We’re trying to get numbers in the final third — more numbers — to support our two strikers. It just didn’t happen for us,” Johnson said. “It’s something we’re conscious of. Obviously we need to score more goals to give ourselves better opportunities to win games. It’s frustrating. It’s something we continue to work on.”
Orlando City will immediately get a chance for revenge, visiting Bobby Dodd Stadium next Saturday, July 29, at 5 p.m.