New York City FC scored first against the run of play but the Lions came back to win 2-1 at Orlando City Stadium on the first day of the Orlando City Invitational. Tesho Akindele and Chris Mueller scored for Orlando, which notched more than one goal in a game for the first time all preseason. It was also the first time the Lions have scored against the Pigeons since 2017.
Sacha Kljestan, Will Johnson, and Sebas Mendez combined to control the middle of the pitch most of the night and the Lions dictated the tempo and flow of the game nearly from start to finish.
“I thought the quality at times was very good,” Head Coach James O’Connor said. “We wanted to try to get 90 minutes into the guys. I thought you could see there was really positive reaction. The players deserve enormous credit. They worked exceptionally hard through preseason. For a lot of them that was their first (full) 90 minutes. So to put in that level of performance after all the work they’ve done is a testament and they deserve enormous credit for that.”
O’Connor’s lineup included rumored new signing Brian Rowe at goalkeeper, behind a three-man back line of Kamal Miller, Alex De John, and Shane O’Neill. Wingbacks Danny Acosta and Ruan flanked a midfield of Kljestan, Johnson, and Mendez, while Akindele and Mueller — sporting his new number nine shirt — manned the forward line.
Orlando City controlled the first half with the exception of only a few scattered moments.
The Lions fashioned the first decent chance of the night just four minutes in. Kljestan fed a good through ball to Akindele on the right but his near-post effort was saved by Sean Johnson. Kljestan himself had a go from the left side of the box two minutes later, but Johnson made another diving save to keep the game scoreless.
Mueller had a shot blocked in the 12th minute from the top of the area and Acosta sent a dangerous cross through the six that no one could latch onto. Kljestan, who had a great half, blasted a shot from outside the area two minutes later but Johnson got across and got a hand on it to keep the game scoreless. Orlando took the ensuing corner short, and Mendez fired a shot right at the New York City FC keeper. Ruan got through on an excellent ball from Kljestan a moment later, but the flag was up as the speedy right back left early.
Ruan used that speed to get to a long ball over the top a couple minutes later and sizzled a cross through the area that was cut out for a corner kick. Miller got his head on the ensuing cross but hit his shot right at Johnson in the 23rd minute.
New York City took the lead at the half-hour mark, completely against the run of play. Maxi Moralez fired from around 30 yards out and got his shot up and over Rowe from distance to make it 1-0. It was NYCFC’s first shot of the match.
The visitors then saw a Jonathan Lewis shot blocked and scored again three minutes later but the flag had come up well before the shot. That was about all of New York’s attack for the first half.
Akindele tied the game in the 34th minute. Acosta sent a cross into the area that Kljestan nodded across the face of goal. Tesho was there to redirect it into the net to make it 1-1.
“I think the most important thing today was our press,” Akindele said. “Our press was really on and I think that kind of set the stage for the rest of the attack, because they were just scrambling to get out of their half in the first place. We were winning the ball in their half and then creating chances quickly.”
Three minutes later, Mendez won the ball in the defensive half and was taken out by Jesus Medina. The referee played advantage and Orlando made it pay off. Kljestan found Akindele, who sent the ball to Mueller, who then dribbled into the left side of the box and scorched one inside the near post to make it 2-1.
“The defender just kind of kept backing away and it was kind of a 2-v-1 (with Akindele) so as I was approaching the goal, I just kept coming a little bit closer,” Mueller said. “Usually from there the back-post finish is usually the one that’s on, but I saw the goalie shift a little bit and I just slotted it to the near side. I got to give (Akindele) credit for the goal because he dragged that defender with him away from me.”
“I was just trying to get up there and help him,” Akindele said of Mueller. “Luckily, he didn’t need me and I was just happy that he was able to score the goal. But I think he would do the same for me. Everybody’s got to work hard to create chances for everyone else.”
The Lions took their deserved lead into the locker room at halftime as they controlled the majority of first-half play.
The second half was more evenly played and New York City looked more dangerous on the counterattack. Still, Orlando seemed more likely to score from the run of play, winning several more corner kick opportunities. Mueller was pulled down by Lewis in the 58th minute, earning the NYCFC/USMNT forward a booking. Kljestan hit the ensuing free kick off the top of the wall and out for a corner, but nothing came of it.
Mueller got a free header on an Acosta cross in the 65th minute and missed the net by inches, as the Lions nearly found a third goal. It looked like it would be a costly miss moments later when the visitors flashed a cross through Orlando’s penalty area that hit off either a defender or the post and barely stayed out.
Ten minutes later, Lewis went down in the area trying to win a penalty and saw his second yellow card of the night — this time for simulation. As a result, he was sent off and New York City was forced to play with 10 the rest of the way.
Orlando played out the string with lots of passing. Ruan picked up a cramp late and was replaced by OCB teenager Jordan Bender, but aside from that, the final 15 minutes went by uneventfully and the Lions held on for the win.
“There’s a couple of areas we can be sharper at. We could be crisper at,” O’Connor said. “But I think overall if you look at where we started from…to see the understanding of attacking and defensive principles was very, very encouraging.”
The Lions improved to 2-1-1 on the preseason. Orlando City will host the New England Revolution on Wednesday in Round 2 of the Orlando City Invitational at 7:30 p.m.
In the early game, Minnesota United got a gift howler from New England goalkeeper Brad Knighton and beat the Revolution, 1-0. Miguel Ibarra took away a bad touch outside the area by Knighton in the second half, rounded the keeper and passed the ball into the net for the game’s only score. The Loons nearly doubled the lead moments later when Revs defender Michael Mancienne deflected a Romain Metanire cross off his own goal post. New England couldn’t find an equalizer and the Loons won the first match in Orlando City Invitational history.