The James O’Connor era has begun and — like Adrian Heath and Jason Kreis before him — he’s already had to deal with a rash of injuries and an unbelievable officiating decision that went against his team. Despite playing a better-looking brand of football for the majority of the 90 minutes at Banc of California Stadium, the Lions still dropped a lopsided 4-1 decision to LAFC (10-4-4, 34 points).
Orlando City (6-11-1, 19 points) has now lost nine consecutive MLS matches and although it appears that there’s no end in sight, the team did play better for the most part, only faltering after captain Jonathan Spector left with a first-half injury and again late after a pair of decisions — one overturned by the video assistant referee in the booth rather than the referee reviewing the video, and the other seemingly not even looked at whatsoever. But some of the same issues were still prevalent, such as finishing opportunities in front of goal.
Hey, at least it wasn’t a shutout, thanks to Sacha Kljestan.
O’Connor didn’t have Scott Sutter (adductor), Cristian Higuita (adductor), Lamine Sané (quad), or Will Johnson (yellow card suspension) so he lined up his squad in a 4-2-3-1.
The Lions did well early to weather LAFC’s notorious early attack. In fact, neither team got a good look at goal for a while, with each firing shots from distance or having deflected chances roll in on the keeper. The hosts got the first good opportunity in the 20th minute with Latif Blessing firing over the bar on a scramble in Orlando’s penalty area. Donny Toia tried to clear a cross but it hit Adama Diomande and stayed in the box for Blessing to track down.
Spector went down with an apparent injury in the 23rd minute and had to be subbed out for Chris Schuler and things quickly unraveled for the Lions’ defense as it took a few minutes to adjust to the captain’s absence. Diomande put the ball in the net in the 26th minute, but the play was offside. Amro Tarek looked to lose the big scoring machine so it was fortunate he was a half a step behind the line. But, just two minutes later, Diomande got his goal.
It started with a Steven Beitashour cross from the right that found the head of Blessing. Bendik appeared to have time to smother the shot but he parried it away instead, allowing LAFC to regroup. Blessing tracked it down and crossed it in, where Tarek whiffed on his clearance attempt, which fell right onto the foot of Mark-Anthony Kaye, who fed Diomande right in front for the easy finish in the 28th minute.
Orlando’s costliest missed opportunity of the match could have tied it and altered the trajectory of the rest of the game. In the 31st minute, Kljestan fed a perfect through ball for Dom Dwyer’s well-timed run. Dwyer was in behind with only Tyler Miller to beat but he couldn’t get his shot past the big goalkeeper.
A minute later, LAFC doubled the lead.
Poor defensive rotation allowed Aaron Kovar to get down the right behind the back line and cross in for Blessing to finish into an empty net. Blessing was a handful for RJ Allen all night on that flank and LAFC punished the Lions severely for not scoring on Dom’s chance just moments earlier to make it 2-0.
The Lions tried to respond before the interval. Josué Colmán sent a curling effort from the top of the area in the 34th minute that forced a diving save from Miller.
In the 43rd minute, Chris Mueller found himself with the ball from a tight angle after Miller muffed a punch attempt. The rookie fizzed his shot through the area, but it was off target and went out for a goal kick. The Lions headed into the locker room down a pair of goals but really only played poorly for a spell of about five minutes after Spector’s injury — notwithstanding the poor finishing.
Orlando started the second half on the front foot, looking to get back into the game. Dwyer was played in early but was offside, then the striker headed wide off a cross from Allen. Finally, Dwyer drew a foul above the penalty area that nearly had the Lions on the board. Kljestan fired on target but Miller made a great save to keep the two-goal lead. All of this happened in the first six minutes of the second half.
Yoshimar Yotún, seeing his first action since returning from World Cup duty with Peru, fired just wide from the top of the area in the 53rd minute.
LAFC appeared to have a 3-0 lead a minute later. Kaye sent in a deflected shot that Bendik completely botched, allowing Diomande to run onto it and crack it into the net from point-blank range. Bendik was saved by the fact that Diomande was offside when the shot was taken by Kaye.
The Lions pulled one back in the 59th minute. Toia broke up an LAFC attack and found Kljestan up the field. LAFC center back Walker Zimmerman raced out to try to defend the play and fell down, allowing Sacha to waltz in and fire home from the top of the area into the far corner to make it 2-1.
LAFC nearly got that goal right back through Blessing’s lightning attack on the restart. The ball cycled around the area before finding Kovar, who fired on frame, but Bendik made the save.
After Bob Bradley introduced substitutes Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela, LAFC had a prolonged period of possession but didn’t offer much menace in the attack. Orlando City eventually got a hold of the ball and looked to tie the game.
Kljestan played a ball to the right for second-half sub Justin Meram, who cut his cross back behind him to Dwyer for the easy finish and the game was tied at 2-2, apparently. Until it wasn’t. After a lengthy delay before the restart, referee Chris Penso signaled that VAR Alex Chilowicz overturned the goal due to an offside call. Replays and photos indicated that Meram appeared even with the back line, if possibly off by just his lower arm. Dwyer was offside when the pass was played to Meram but the winger’s play put the striker back on. Penso never went to look at the replay and took the VAR’s word. Does this look like a clear and obvious error? Because, though I may be biased, it doesn’t look like a clear and obvious error to me.
The Lions kept coming. Dwyer got inside the defense again in the 80th minute but again Miller was able to make the save. That was the last opportunity for the Lions to change their fortunes, as just two minutes later LAFC scored again to put the game to bed.
This one came off a corner header that Bendik got a piece of and Meram cleared off the line. The ball popped back out in front to Diomande, who went to ground for a bicycle-type kick that hit the crossbar, fell to the ground, and appeared to be cleared off the line again. Penso signaled the goal — and it very may well have been completely over the line — but the restart came quickly without any lengthy delay this time. Go figure.
I’m not saying the ball didn’t cross the line, but can we not hurry one team back to play while we dissect the film for the other team? The word I’m looking for here — and so is the Professional Referee Organization — is consistency.
Anyway, the game was effectively over with Diomande’s second goal at the 82-minute mark, but that didn’t stop LAFC from adding another moments later through Rossi. The play started on a routine back pass to Tarek, but he took a horrible first touch and then got muscled off the ball by Diomande. Blessing ran onto it, leaving Schuler to defend two players, and that’s a tall ask when those players are Blessing and Rossi, who scored into an empty net to make it 4-1.
Miller rubbed salt in the wound with a pair of big saves in the 90th minute on Uri Rosell and Mohamed El-Munir. First Uri tried his luck from above the semicircle and Miller made a diving stop. Mo ran onto it and tried to go near post when the far post may have been the better option, but it was still a screamer and Miller made a good reaction save.
The four minutes of stoppage were eaten up quickly, much of it while Orlando City debated a free kick just outside the area. After all the debate, the training ground play was a disaster and no shot even came out of it. That about summed up the night — a night which could have gone much differently without Mr. Chilowicz’s involvement.
On the balance, LAFC was the better side, out-shooting Orlando City, 19-14 (13-9 on goal), keeping 63% of the possession, and passing at an 88% accuracy compared to the Lions’ 75%. But the 4-1 score line is a bit misleading, especially with Orlando’s second goal being curiously disallowed. Who knows where a 2-2 match ends up over the final 18 minutes? Still, Orlando wasn’t sharp enough in front of goal — and credit Miller for a lot of this — and didn’t need to concede those two late scores.
Overall, it wasn’t a bad first effort under O’Connor’s tutelage but it appears it’s going to take some time.
The Lions are home next Saturday night when Toronto FC comes to Orlando City Stadium.