Orlando City put in a good performance for 45 minutes but could not maintain it for the full 90. Atlanta United (16-4-6, 54 points) got a second-half goal from Josef Martinez — his record-breaking 28th of the season — to snap a 1-1 deadlock and win, 2-1, in front of 25,058 fans at Orlando City Stadium. The Lions (7-16-2, 23 points) dropped to 0-4-2 in the all-time series and are now winless in six (0-5-1).
It was a workmanlike effort from Orlando City, which was missing midfielders Yoshimar Yotún and Cristian Higuita due to suspension, but the defensive shape throughout the match was mostly good and Atlanta didn’t get its usual number of great scoring chances, despite a final shot advantage of 19-6.
“Obviously very disappointed. It was a game we wanted to try and win for the supporters,” Head Coach James O’Connor said after the match. “When you look at the level of the performance, I think it wasn’t good enough. We need to be honest with ourselves. For where we want to get to and where we’re going to get to, we need levels of performance that are higher.”
O’Connor’s lineup included the return of Jonathan Spector from a hamstring injury and the debut of Carlos Ascues. Sacha Kljestan (ankle) and Mohamed El-Munir (coach’s decision) were not in the 18.
The Lions got the first good look at goal three minutes into the match. Chris Mueller took the ball up the left side and faked his way past three defenders across the top of the box before Atlanta closed on him. The ball deflected wide to Will Johnson, who fired a blast that forced a diving save by Brad Guzan.
Atlanta’s first decent effort came two minutes later when Jeff Larentowicz was left in space above the penalty area. The midfielder smashed a shot that forced Joe Bendik into a diving stop. Four minutes later, Bendik made a comfortable save on Hector Villalba, who cut inside of PC and fired from the top of the area.
Josue Colmán fired wide after a nice buildup play in the 13th minute. Dom Dwyer sprayed the ball wide for Mueller, who found Colmán just inside the area. Two minutes later, PC blasted a shot from the left that Guzan tipped over the net for a corner.
Atlanta broke the scoreless deadlock in the 21st minute after Uri Rosell was whistled for a foul in the defensive third, handing the visitors a free kick. Rosell tried to play a 50/50 ball and extended his leg, which Chris McCann ran into from the side. Ezequiel Barco took the set piece and fired a one-hopper right at Bendik. The Orlando keeper misplayed the hop and it deflected straight to Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, who bundled it in off of Bendik to make it 1-0.
The game slowed down a bit for the next 10 minutes or so before the next good opportunity. Miguel Almiron tried his luck from long range and Bendik didn’t seem to pick it up right away, eventually diving to keep the score at 1-0 in the 35th minute.
Orlando leveled the match four minutes later. As the attack switched from left to right, the ball found its way to Ascues, who gave it to Mueller. Mueller found Johnson, who flicked a backheel into the path of Scott Sutter. The fullback smashed a knuckling shot past Guzan to tie the game in the 39th minute.
“It was a good play by the guys,” Sutter said. “We knew that they were quite vulnerable if you switch the side quickly and I think we did that. I think it was Chris who played the ball inside and Will laid it off perfectly. I took it in my stride and closed my eyes and struck the ball. It was one of my better goals I’ve scored in my career but it all led to nothing, unfortunately.”
Atlanta nearly pulled that goal right back after the restart. An attack down the right managed to get in behind the defense and a pass to Martinez seemed to set him up for an easy goal to set the all-time MLS goal-scoring mark for a single season. Spector got back and did just enough to throw Martinez off and the shot trickled just wide of the right post. That was the last good opportunity for either team in the half and the teams went to their locker rooms all even at 1-1.
Atlanta led in shots (9-4), shots on target (6-3), possession (60%-40%), and passing accuracy (91%-88%), but if not for a big miscue by Bendik, the Lions would have led at the half.
The second half largely consisted of long spells of Atlanta possession above the Orlando City penalty area but not a lot of dangerous attacking movements.
Atlanta got the first dangerous chances of the second half, with Almiron firing a shot over the bar in the 47th minute and Gonzalez Pirez sending a header wide off a free kick two minutes later. In the 55th minute, Bendik made a vital save to deny Villalba and Spector cleared the rebound out of harm’s way. Martinez got onto a cross in the 58th but sent his shot right at Bendik.
Bendik then made back-to-back saves in the 61st minute to keep the game stalemated.
The visitors finally broke through on the counter in the 74th minute after Mueller lost the ball at the top of Atlanta’s penalty area. The ball was cleared out to Villalba, who found Gressel on the right side. Gressel slipped a ball past Rosell, who mistimed his challenge, allowing Martinez to get in behind, where he patiently waited for Bendik to commit and scored the game winner.
Orlando City’s best opportunity to pull a goal back came in the 79th minute. Second-half sub Pierre Da Silva — seeing only his second MLS game action ever — won a corner kick and Johnson delivered an excellent near-post cross to Dwyer, who flicked a header on target. Guzan stuck out a hand to get just enough of it to keep it out and preserve Atlanta’s lead.
From that point on, Orlando continued to try to throw numbers forward and Atlanta seemed destined to get a third on the counter but nothing materialized for either team and the Lions simply couldn’t maintain possession long enough to create anything on the offensive end.
Atlanta led the stat sheet in shots (19-6), shots on target (10-4), possession (62%-38%), and passing accuracy (91%-85%). Orlando managed only a measly two shots after halftime.
“They pinned us in and they were keeping the ball, so for us it needs to be better,” O’Connor said. “When we had the ball we were giving the ball away in needless areas. Our decision making was really poor and we’ve got guys who are better than they showed tonight. That’s the really frustrating thing.”
“Today I don’t think it was good enough,” Sutter said. “James let us know that at the end of the game. I think we just need to improve in every which way.”
One of the bright spots for Orlando City was Ascues, who played 67 minutes in his debut and looked solid after only a week of training with his new team.
“I thought to be fair to him, I thought he battled away,” O’Connor said. “I think all things considered he can be pleased. He gave a very encouraging performance for sure.”
“I feel very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the starting (lineup) today,” Ascues said through a club translator. “I think that I had a good debut but I’m not happy that we weren’t able to get the result.”
The Lions are back in action next Saturday when the Philadelphia Union visit Orlando City Stadium at 7:30 p.m.
Wide Players Made the Difference in Victory Over Cavalry FC
Orlando’s fullbacks and wingers had great games against Cavalry, and it helped propel the Lions to victory.
Orlando City began its 2024 season with a resounding and confident 3-0 win over Cavalry FC on the road up in Canada. The Lions grabbed control of the game with an early goal and never let up, and now go into next week’s home leg in excellent position to advance to the next round. Everyone who played out wide for OCSC can and should take a well-earned bow for their performances, as it was their excellent games that pushed the Lions to a big advantage after the first leg.
The first goal looked easy enough, but it was a product of good vision and better execution. After collecting the ball near midfield, Wilder Cartagena turned into space and played a quick ball out to Ivan Angulo on the left wing. Martin Ojeda began his run in a fairly central position, but recognized that there was space behind fullback Shamit Shome, and immediately went to it. He was rewarded when Angulo took one touch to collect the ball, another to settle it, and used his third to play Ojeda into the space behind Shome, with defensive midfielder Jesse Daley coming back to cover. However, the pass from Angulo was perfectly weighted and Ojeda was able to use his first touch to play a cross into the box, preventing Daley from getting in the way of his delivery. Ojeda laid the ball on a plate, and Duncan McGuire made no mistake from close range.
The second goal also came as a result of play out wide, although it was more a goal of individual brilliance than team skill. Dagur Dan Thorhallsson drove at the heart of the retreating Cavalry defense, and pulled three players to him before releasing the ball at precisely the correct time to Facundo Torres on the right wing. Once there, the man defending Torres, William Akio, made the cardinal sin of allowing Facu to cut in on his left foot, and Orlando’s new no. 10 made the opposition pay with a shot to the near post that skipped off the turf and beat Marco Carducci, who admittedly maybe should have done better with it than he did.
The dagger came as a result of more excellent play down the left-hand side. Nicolas Lodeiro, Angulo, and Ramiro Enrique used some slick one-touch passing that resulted in Enrique sending Angulo in behind on the left. Enrique’s ball to free his fellow Colombian was perfectly weighted, and Angulo was able to use his first touch to play a perfect lofted cross to the back post, where Torres dispatched it with a beautiful diving header for his second of the match.
Numbers don’t lie, and they back up the assertion that the wide players had good games. Thorhallsson promptly picked up where he left off at right back, finishing with 81% passing accuracy, one key pass, one assist, one clearance, and one interception. If he keeps this up, then Mikey Halliday is going to have a fight on his hands when it comes to the starting job. Kyle Smith quietly had a good game on the opposite side of the defense, completing one dribble, winning a tackle, and recording four clearances, although his 72% passing accuracy could have been better.
Ivan Angulo was an absolute terror, and looked even more dangerous on the slick turf than he normally does on grass fields. He gave the Cavalry defense fits, and completed four dribbles, recording two key passes, a cross, two long balls, an interception, a tackle, and an assist while completing 84% of his passes. As in seasons past, the big question for him this year surrounds his decision-making in the final third and his finishing. If both of those attributes continue to improve, then he’ll be an almighty handful for opposing defenses.
Torres was, well, Torres. He’s been the straw that stirs Orlando City’s drink for two years now, and Wednesday night was no different. Facu took three shots and scored with the two he put on target, completed 86% of his passes, logging one key pass. He also completed a dribble and chipped in with a clearance and an interception on defense. Time will tell if he’s managed to add the use of his right foot to his game yet, but he was a pleasure to watch, as usual.
I also want to take a moment to shout-out Ojeda. While he was deployed through the middle in the no. 10 role, rather than out wide, where we’re used to seeing him, he was excellent. The Argentine repeatedly drifted into the half-spaces between center back and fullback and had a field day pulling the strings, as he finished with a whopping five key passes. If he can translate that sort of performance to MLS, then a lot of pressure will be taken off the aging legs of Nico Lodeiro.
In short, the Lions made their living on Wednesday by stretching the field, getting the ball to their dangerous players out wide, and then making and executing the correct decisions once it was there. There were a lot of things to like offensively about the performance, and it provided plenty to build on when OCSC opens MLS play against CF Montreal tomorrow. Vamos Orlando!
Lion Links: 2/23/24
Orlando Pride’s Megan Montefusco placed on season-ending injury list, Orlando City’s chances to win it all, USWNT plays Argentina tonight, and more.
Happy Friday! It’s the final Friday before we spend pretty much every weekend screaming our hearts out for Orlando’s soccer teams. Although I won’t be in Orlando for tomorrow’s game, I’ll be cheering along from Tampa and am looking forward to a strong start to the season from the Lions. Before we get into today’s links, let’s all wish a happy birthday to our favorite octopus, Pedro Gallese!
Megan Montefusco Placed On Season-Ending Injury List
The Orlando Pride suffered a blow to their defense as center back Megan Montefusco was placed on the season-ending injury list after undergoing surgery on her right foot. Montefusco joined the Pride through a trade before the 2022 season and did well coming off the bench last season to keep Orlando’s defense strong as the year wore on. The Pride have options to fill the void, as Carrie Lawrence is back in the fray after missing last season due to injury and Tori Hansen will be back once her time on loan in Australia is up. Orlando could also go out and bring in a veteran to replace Montefusco or sign Cori Dyke, who was drafted by the Pride in the second round. Regardless, losing Montefusco is rough, considering Rafaella will likely be with Brazil for the Olympics this summer.
Orlando City’s Championship Credentials
Joseph Lowery of MLSsoccer.com detailed the strengths and weaknesses of each MLS team in terms of having what it takes to win it all this year. Orlando City followed up a pretty stellar off-season with a nearly perfect preseason. Head Coach Oscar Pareja, winger Ivan Angulo, and midfielder Wilder Cartagena are all sticking around, while Robin Jansson, Facundo Torres, and the front office brain trust of Luiz Muzzi and Ricardo Moreira were locked down as well. Additions of David Brekalo, Luis Muriel, and Nico Lodeiro also ensured this team has few holes. There’s concern that there are too many mouths to feed though, and that no single player can take the reins of the offense. I disagree on that being much of an issue though, as the attack is fluid enough to beat different teams in different ways. The Lions may go without All-Star representation as a result, but they should rack up plenty of points spreading the wealth on offense.
USWNT Takes on Argentina Tonight
The United States Women’s National Team will face Argentina tonight at 10:15 p.m. in its second game of the inaugural Concacaf W Gold Cup. The U.S. did well in its 5-0 win over the Dominican Republic, but there were opportunities to score even more. Since there will be reseeding for the knockout stages, scoring plenty of goals will benefit the USWNT. Midge Purce was excellent in the opener and the USWNT will need to be sharper at putting away good service from the wings. Argentina held Mexico to a scoreless draw in its opener and will likely be hungry to score its first goal of the tournament.
Keeping Up With the Europa League
The first round of the Europa League’s knockout stage came to a close after a drama-filled day of soccer. Only one game went to penalty kicks, as AS Roma beat Feyenoord after a 1-1 draw thanks to two saves from Mile Svilar in the shootout. There was a thriller in Azerbaijan as well. A red card reduced Qarabag FK to 10 men and Braga took full advantage, scoring twice to send the game into extra time. They then traded goals until 19-year-old winger Nariman Akhundzade gave Qarabag the winner in stoppage time. In Germany, SC Freiburg came back from a two-goal deficit to beat Lens in extra time as well.
Elsewhere, a red card doomed Galatasaray as Sparta Prague rallied late to win, and AC Milan survived a hat trick from Rennes midfielder Benjamin Bourigeaud to advance on aggregate. Sporting CP, Marseille, and Benfica all booked their spot in the round of 16 as well, with the draw set for today.
- New food vendors will be available for fans at Orlando City and Orlando Pride home games this year, with Flippers Pizzeria Company now a permanent addition. New options for the rotating carts include Pardon My Cheesesteak and Omusubee Japanese Rice Balls.
- Congratulations to Pride defender Emily Madril on getting married!
- Former Barcelona right back Dani Alves was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison after being found guilty of sexual assault.
- Former Lion Greg Ranjitsingh has re-signed with Toronto FC through the 2024 season, with an option for 2025. The 30-year-old sticks around in Toronto’s goalkeeping corps, which also includes Sean Johnson and Luka Gavran.
- The Philadelphia Union loaned forward Joaquin Torres to Club Deportivo Universidad Catolica in Chile’s top flight.
- English goalkeeper Joe Hart will retire following this season with Celtic, ending a 20-year career.
- Luis de la Fuente’s contract as the manager of Spain’s men’s national team was extended through the 2026 World Cup.
That’s all I have for you today. I hope you all have a fantastic Friday and rest of your weekend!
Orlando City vs. CF Montreal: Three Keys to Victory
What does Orlando City need to do to secure all three points in the home opener against CF Montreal?
Orlando City will host CF Montreal in the club’s first match of the 2024 MLS regular season this Saturday night. The Lions are coming off the Concacaf Champions Cup match against Cavalry FC Wednesday night. Orlando City will want to get things started the right way as expectations and aspirations are higher than ever for the club.
What does Orlando City need to do to secure a victory in the home opener against their Canadian opponents?
Orlando City has four matches in 11 days — the previously mentioned Wednesday match against Cavalry in Canada, the match against Montreal on Saturday, the return match against Cavalry in Orlando next Tuesday, and then a trip to Ft. Lauderdale to take on Inter Miami. That is quite a start to competitive play in 2024.
Because of the schedule congestion, Oscar Pareja will need to rotate players. That means we’re not likely to have the preferred starting 11 as much as any of us will like. Kyle Smith, Michael Halliday, Jeorgio Kocevski, and others will likely see playing time. How well Pareja manages when to use which players, and for how long, will determine not just the result of this match against Montreal, but for each of the other matches as well.
Rodrigo Schlegel is serving a suspension in this first league match and will not be available. That means Orlando City’s newest center back, David Brekalo, will probably get the start alongside Robin “The Beefy Swede” Jansson. Having a good center back pairing is absolutely essential to the success of any defense. We know that because once Jansson and former Lion Antonio Carlos worked together for a while, they became an absolute fortress on the back line.
Now, Jansson will need to build the same chemistry with Brekalo if the Lions want to maintain their position as one of the best defenses in the league. With Schlegel unavailable, there is no question that Jansson and Brekalo will have the opportunity to start building that relationship. Hopefully, it will be good enough to keep Montreal — especially Josef Martinez — out of the goal.
Keep Torres Scoring
Facundo Torres had a great preseason. Orlando City’s new owner of the No. 10 shirt needs to keep doing the same. He’ll need to score goals, provide assists, and create problems for Montreal’s defense. Traditionally, Montreal has put out a three-man back line. While that means it’ll be a five-man back line when Orlando City has the ball, during changes of possession there should be space for Torres to get free and get scoring opportunities.
If Montreal smartly tried to contain Torres, then it will have to deal with Duncan McGuire, Nico Lodeiro, and Ivan Angulo. Orlando City’s offense has the potential to score quite a few more goals this season, and it all starts Saturday night against Montreal. Get two on the board and I think it will mean three points in the standings.
That is what I will be looking for Saturday night. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Vamos Orlando!
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