Sacha Kljestan came back to haunt his old team, scoring the only goal in Orlando City’s 1-0 win over the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. Orlando (1-1-2, 5 points) won its first match of the 2019 season and its first road match since April 29, 2018 at Colorado, thanks to Kljestan’s strike in the 73rd minute. It snapped a four-game losing streak at Red Bull Arena, as the Lions improved to 4-5-1 in the all-time series against New York (1-1-1, 4 points).
The Lions didn’t just sit back and bunker. They (mostly) took good care of the ball to avoid giving New York counter opportunities and covered for each other well at the back all night. City also looked to get forward when the opportunities came. Chances were few, but most of the ones the Lions fashioned were good ones. In the end, it only took one goal to grab the win and Kljestan bagged it against his former team.
James O’Connor made some changes to his lineup, going back to a 3-5-2 and giving Robin Jansson and Joao Moutinho their Orlando City debuts and Santiago Patino his first MLS start. Carlos Ascues moved up into the midfield for the injured Will Johnson and Uri Rosell got his first start of the year in place of Sebas Mendez (international duty). The biggest surprise was Dom Dwyer moving to the bench.
The Red Bulls came out as you’d expect, pressing high, taking the ball away in midfield and looking for chances to strike on the counter. This led to a series of early corners and the hosts nearly scored in the sixth minute off such a set piece. Alex Muyl get on the end of a cross and headed a laser on target but Brian Rowe fought it off to keep the game scoreless.
Orlando’s first chance came three minutes later, when Patino made a nice turn in the box and found Rosell, who saw his shot blocked by Tim Parker.
Muyl was forced to move to left back from right wing after Connor Lade was injured after a collision with Ruan. Lade was unable to continue, and since the Red Bulls had no available fullbacks — both Michael Murillo and Kemar Lawrence are away on international duty — Muyl was conscripted for the position and Omir Fernandez came on to take his place in the attacking midfield.
While Lade was still off and the change had yet to be made, Ruan had a golden scoring chance, cutting into the box but firing weakly at Luis Robles. Then Ruan got down the right in the 25th minute and his cross found Patino, but the shot off the rookie’s boot was deflected by former Lion Amro Tarek and flew up in the air. It found Moutinho eventually but the volley attempt was well over the bar.
Rowe made another pair of nice plays on a New York corner in the 29th, punching out the initial cross, and then scrambling back to catch a headed shot on target. Seconds later, Ruan made an error with a bad cross-field pass, which Fernandez cut out. The young midfielder attacked the back line and unleashed a shot but Rowe handled it comfortably.
One of Orlando’s best chances came in the 31st minute. Off a set piece, Shane O’Neill gained possession and sent a long ball for Patino. The rookie was fouled by Kyle Duncan but fought off the New York right back and headed in alone toward Robles’ goal. However, an untidy touch as he tried to set himself up for a shot caused the chance to go away.
The Lions had another good opportunity in the 43rd minute. Nani broke in on goal, but instead of firing, he waited for Kljestan to overlap. Kljestan had little angle to beat Robles but spotted a teammate at the back post. Unfortunately, Tarek knocked his cross attempt out of the air and behind for a corner, and the teams went to the locker rooms locked in a scoreless tie.
New York led in first-half shots, 5-3 (3-0 on target, despite Ruan’s shot seemingly being sent right to Robles in front of goal), possession (51%-49%), and passing accuracy (59%-58%), although neither team passed particularly well in the opening 45 minutes.
The first good opportunity in the second half fell for Ruan, who blazed past the New York defense to get in down the right side. The right back took a loose touch in the box and it allowed Robles to close him down. The keeper blocked the shot with his legs in a desperation sprawl in the 52nd minute.
Three minutes later, the Red Bulls nearly broke the deadlock. Ascues gave the ball away cheaply in the middle of the pitch, and Bradley Wright-Phillips fired a shot toward the back side of goal. Rowe got just a fingertip on it and kept it out.
Dwyer came on in the 60th minute for Patino, and three minutes later the Lions lost Alex De John, who made a nice play to track back, block a cross, and knock it out for a throw. He immediately signaled to the bench for a sub and Lamine Sané made his season debut in his place.
The game turned in the 73rd minute. O’Neill sent a long ball up the middle and Dwyer did well to hold up play, bringing it down with his chest and spraying it wide left to Moutinho. The Portuguese fullback fizzed a cross through the area out of the reach of Parker. Kljestan beat a sliding defender to the ball and slotted home his first goal of the season.
New York nearly answered three minutes later. Off a set piece, the ball pinged toward goal off a Daniel Royer shot and surely would have gone in if Ascues hadn’t bicycle-kicked it off the line to preserve the lead.
Orlando brought Kyle Smith on for Nani to try to see the game out, making a defense-for-offense substitution in the 77th minute. New York’s next scoring chance came in the 81st, when Royer headed wide off a set piece.
The Lions nearly got a second to put the game away in the 88th minute. Dwyer sent in a wicked cross that nearly found Ruan, only to see Muyl make a desperation sliding block to keep the Brazilian from doubling the lead.
Unlike the Chicago game two weeks ago, the Lions held firm, defended resolutely, pushed the ball to the corners and out for throw-ins whenever possible, and held their focus to the end — an end that for some reason included seven (!) minutes of stoppage time.
New York edged out Orlando in shots, 9-6 (4-2 on target) and increased its possession advantage (55%-45%). The Red Bulls hit 61% of their passes while Orlando completed just 58%, with both teams playing safely out whenever possible.
City’s tactics were sound against New York on the road and the game plan was mostly executed well. Jansson was a calm and solid defender all night, looking like he’d been playing for Orlando for years rather than only having been with the team a couple weeks and making his MLS debut. De John and O’Neill played a safe match, with Ruan opting to concede throw-ins out on the right rather than try anything fancy with the ball.
Aside from a couple of loose passes across the field, Orlando executed what it wanted to against last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners, and eventually hit on one of its attacking forays. In the end, one is all it took.
The Lions won’t have an easy time turning tonight’s win into two straight. They return home for a game next Sunday against D.C. United at 6:30 p.m.