It was billed as biggest game in Orlando City’s history, but the Lions didn’t play like it in a 2-0 U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss to Atlanta United at Exploria Stadium. A club record crowd for a U.S. Open Cup match (18,461) showed up to cheer on the Lions and see history made. But City gave the fans little to cheer about and what could have been a memorable night ended only in disappointment.
Orlando struggled to link up on several passes that could have had runners in behind the defense but they were underhit, overhit, or hit right at defenders instead of in between. When the Lions did get opportunities, they couldn’t hit the target.
With all of Atlanta’s firepower, it was Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman who produced the offense instead of the likes of Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, or Justin Meram.
“Very disappointed to get beat,” said Head Coach James O’Connor after the match. “First half especially I thought we didn’t really play anywhere near like to our capacity. I think the occasion seemed to get to us. Second half our intent was a lot better. We were camped in their half. But we needed more quality. It was very evident.”
O’Connor sent out essentially a first-choice lineup. Quarterfinals star Adam Grinwis got the start in goal, with the back line full of regular starters, both Designated Players up top next to Tesho Akindele, and a midfield of Will Johnson, Sacha Kljestan, and Sebas Mendez.
Atlanta controlled the opening 15 minutes of the first half as the Lions struggled to get on the ball — or stay on it when they did get it. The visitors fashioned their first of six first-half corners within the first minute of the game.
Former Lion Meram and Miles Robinson each nodded off frame on set pieces in the opening minutes.
Dom Dwyer put the ball in the net in the fifth minute but he was correctly ruled offside on the play.
Martinez got in behind the defense in the 15th minute and fired into the outside netting.
Orlando’s first good chance came in the 18th minute when Nani fed a cross to Dwyer but his left-footed effort was blasted just over the bar. It was a great opportunity to take the early lead but the striker went for power and just couldn’t keep it down.
Orlando started to get more into the match after that for about the next 10 minutes. Joao Moutinho turned Atlanta over in the 21st minute and fed across for Akindele, who was bodied off the ball at the top of the area but no foul was given. Moments later, Nani appeared to get clipped by Julian Gressel, but again no foul was called.
Around the half-hour mark the visitors got back on the front foot. Remedi came up the middle and no one challenged him, so he fired a shot that forced a Grinwis save. Three minutes later, Barco scuffed a shot off a Gressel cross. Robinson sent another free header wide off a corner kick in the 34th minute.
Atlanta finally broke through in the 37th. Remedi forced a diving save from Grinwis, who knocked the ball out to his left. Gressel gathered it and sent it back in to Remedi, who had continued his run. The midfielder took the shot first time and scored.
Moutinho tried to pull the goal right back. He dispossessed Franco Escobar and fired a shot just wide of Brad Guzan’s goal in the 38th.
Johnson forced Guzan’s first save of the night in the 45th minute and after two minutes of stoppage time the teams headed to the locker rooms.
Atlanta took a 1-0 lead into the break, leading in shots (12-4), shots on target (5-1), possession (61%), and passing accuracy (85%-73%). It was the last stat that really hurt Orlando, as balls that were hit too hard or too softly in the middle of the pitch ruined several good opportunities at transition chances.
The Lions fashioned the first good chance of the second half. Ruan finally got forward and crossed a ball for Dwyer but Escobar got a foot in at the last second and deflected it out for a corner.
Five minutes later, Nani chipped a perfect back-door pass for Kljestan at the back post but the midfielder hit his shot over the bar.
“Clearly we didn’t have enough shots on target tonight to have Brad Guzan forced into saves,” Kljestan said. “That’s pretty much it. Not enough of us finished our plays on target.”
O’Connor tried subbing on fresh reinforcements in the 58th minute to get after the game, bringing on Chris Mueller and Benji Michel for Dwyer and Kljestan. It didn’t provide much help. Both players were certainly active, but the same things plagued the team after the substitutions as before — general lack of sharpness with the final ball, a hesitancy to take quick, positive actions, and just not being on the same page.
A good example of that came in the 71st minute when Michel broke down the left side and into the area. He had room and time to pick out a pass but sent a mostly hopeful cross to the top of the area, where it took a deflection and then fell between two players. Nani eventually got onto it and shot but the delay allowed Atlanta to block his shot.
Atlanta defended well all night and was content to concede possession in the game’s later stages but Orlando couldn’t take advantage. Akindele found himself with space at the top of the area in the 74th minute but fired well over the bar.
O’Connor was forced to sub off Moutinho in the 78th minute for what he said after the game was a tight hamstring. Alex De John came on, and the shape of the team changed, which may have led to the game’s second goal.
Just seconds after the sub, the visitors got forward and scored their second. Remedi played the ball to Escobar on the left, who lost Ruan and slid the ball into the middle for an onrushing Hyndman, who beat Lamine Sané and slotted home. Orlando seemed a bit out of sorts defensively just after the substitution and Atlanta pounced on that immediately to put the game away.
“They had one real chance second half and it’s a goal,” O’Connor said.
From that point on, it was a matter of watching a few more breakdowns in the final third and a weak dribbler on goal from Mueller to account for City’s second shot on target all night. Seven minutes of stoppage time produced nothing of note other than Mueller’s grass cutter and the final whistle ended Orlando’s Open Cup run.
Atlanta out-shot the Lions 15-12 (7-2 on target), held 51% of the final possession and out-passed Orlando (79%-77%).
“I don’t know if it was nerves or it was just a little bit of general tiredness. We just looked a little bit sluggish,” O’Connor said. “I don’t know whether that was just the emotion of the occasion seemed to get to us. We just looked a yard off — especially first half. We had big moments in the game. We haven’t capitalized…you can’t do that against a team like Atlanta.”
The coach got a bit agitated when it was pointed out that the Lions had yet to beat Atlanta, stating he doesn’t care about what happened before he became coach and that the team just needs to be mentally stronger to beat their neighbors to the north.
“I’m not interested in that. It’s all mentality,” he said. “We were beaten tonight because we weren’t good enough.”
Kljestan said the team can take some positives from a deep Cup run into the rest of the MLS season.
“I think we dug deep on a few of these games,” Kljestan said. “When we played NYCFC, that was a gut punch to give up a goal in the last second but we reacted well and ended up winning the game in penalties. The game against New England also an overtime game. So, it was a good journey for us and I think we learned a lot about ourselves. And also we used some rotation in those games and a lot of guys who maybe aren’t regular performers ended up being big players in the Open Cup for us. So, I think we’ve got to draw confidence from that and we’ve got to know that this cannot derail our season.”
The Lions will need to shake off the disappointment quickly, as they return to MLS action on Saturday night when they travel to Canada to take on Toronto FC at 7:30 p.m. at BMO Field.
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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