Orlando City is apparently Phil Connors on Groundhog Day, as for the third time this season the Lions were shut out against Atlanta United. The Lions (9-12-7, 34 points) played their best game of the three meetings this season but were wasteful in front of goal, as they fell 1-0 to the Eastern Conference leaders (15-9-3, 48 points) at Exploria Stadium. The loss snapped Orlando’s 2-0-2 unbeaten run and dropped the Lions to 0-6-2 in the all-time series in league play and 0-7-2 in all competitive matches.
The crowd of 23,014 saw the Lions play assertively from the jump and created the better chances in this one, but too many shots were off target or driven right at Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Defensively, the Lions didn’t allow many good looks, but one was all it took in the second half for Josef Martinez to run his goal-scoring streak to 12 straight games and net the game-winning goal.
Orlando created an incredible 17 chances in the game but somehow failed to find the net at the end of any of them — a fact Orlando City Head Coach James O’Connor lamented in his postgame press conference.
“I think unfortunately for us tonight we’ve played very well, we’ve had exceptional chance creation, we just weren’t able to take our chances, which is just very hard to swallow. Very painful for us,” O’Connor said after the match. “Sometimes you have a game where you have a lot of shots and they’re maybe outside the box. They’re shots that maybe are difficult chances. I think when you look at the areas we got into, we should have either shot sooner or punished them.
“We can say we were unlucky, but for me, we were the architects of our own downfall, because when you have that many chances, you have to capitalize, and you have to take those chances — especially against a team like that, because they get a couple of chances and bang, it’s in the back of the net.”
O’Connor inserted Mauricio Pereyra into the starting lineup for the first time, pushing Sebas Mendez out of the starting XI. Nani moved to the left wing and Tesho Akindele replaced Dom Dwyer from Saturday’s lineup at Minnesota.
The Lions played their best half against Atlanta this season in the opening 45 minutes but couldn’t put the ball in the net. The visitors did well to deflect and block shots, but Orlando was also wasteful with chances, with Carlos Ascues in particular firing right at Guzan twice with a lot of net at which to shoot. Pereyra’s first home start began with a couple of early fouls that earned him a lecture from referee Nima Saghafi, but he was brilliant in the opening half, pulling the defense apart and finding teammates all over the attacking third.
Ascues’ first opportunity was blocked just five minutes in, as the Peruvian’s movement was good throughout the half and Atlanta’s defense concentrated more on Akindele. Ascues then tracked back well to block a shot on the other end seconds later.
At the seven-minute mark, Ascues again found himself with a good scoring opportunity but fired his shot right at Guzan.
A minute later, Benji Michel won a race to the end line and turned inside the defense, but he then grew impatient and fizzed a cross through the area to no one in particular.
Atlanta scored in the ninth minute but the play was offside. After Lamine Sané cleared a ball out to the right, Kyle Smith had his pass blocked over top of everyone to Martinez. The striker beat Brian Rowe but was well behind the back line when the ball was played and the flag nullified the goal.
In the 10th minute, Akindele beat Miles Robinson on the right and fired from a tight angle, only to see Guzan make a save at the near post, giving the Lions a corner.
Sané forced another Guzan save on the ensuing corner with a header on frame off Pereyra’s cross.
Nani sent Benj in behind in the 13th minute. He went down under contact but the flag had come up (though I’m not sure it should have).
Atlanta’ got a decent look in the 17th minute but Pity Martinez fired over the bar.
Pereyra sent Ascues in again in the 22nd minute, but Darlington Nagbe poked the ball away from behind at the last second to prevent a scoring chance. Nani took the ensuing corner short and it ended up on Michel’s foot. The rookie fired but saw his shot deflected, giving Guzan an easy ball to collect.
Pity Martinez sent a shot just inches wide of the back post in the 24th minute and Ezequiel Barco had a shot deflect easily in for Rowe in the 31st.
Orlando’s last good look of the half was another excellent pass from Pereyra to Ascues, who fired right at Guzan again.
The teams went to the locker room scoreless, with Orlando leading in shots (9-6) and shots on target (4-1). Atlanta blocked five of City’s efforts. Atlanta held 58% of the possession and was more accurate in passing (84%-76%) but you’d have to say the Lions had the better opportunities.
The teams were a little less sharp to start the second half but 15 minutes after the break the visitors took the lead. After winning a ball in the midfield, Atlanta broke in with numbers and Sané was caught upfield. Barco sent the ball left to Josef Martinez, who beat Rowe to make it 1-0.
“I think on their goal, quick transition and then Josef gets half a yard inside the box and it’s a goal,” O’Connor said. “His record speaks for itself.”
“I feel we were pushing numbers forward and maybe got too comfortable leaving ourselves 1-v-1 there,” said rookie defender Kamal Miller. “I got back late and it ended up a 2-v-2 and just they took their chance and that how it goes sometimes.”
Orlando fired 12 shots toward Atlanta’s net in the second half but not one of them was on target. Nani sent a shot just wide in the 62nd minute, then saw a dangerous cross almost knocked into the net for an own goal by Robinson. The captain then sent a beautiful chip pass to Ascues in the 65th but the Peruvian sent his shot just wide of goal, rippling the outside netting.
“I thought (Ascues) had some wonderful opportunities to score tonight,” O’Connor said. “I thought his understanding of space was excellent. Perhaps maybe could have shot a little quicker with a couple of those opportunities.”
Two minutes later, Nani fizzed a shot just wide of net.
Atlanta had a chance to double the lead in the 68th minute as Orlando got caught pushing forward for the equalizer. Martinez went for his brace by chipping Rowe but hit the left post. The ball came back to him and the Atlanta striker fired over the bar.
Uri Rosell got onto a Nani pass and fired off target in the 75th as the Lions continued to create but also continued to fail to put the final ball in the net.
Rowe made a huge mistake in the 80th minute but was able to clean up his own mess. His pass was picked off and gave Atlanta a 2-v-Rowe. Hector Villalba crossed over to Martinez but Rowe was able to come off his line to smother the chance.
A couple of more misses by both sides and the game was over. Before the final whistle, Nani got in a tussle with Julian Gressel and went down behind the play. Nani had been tugging Gressel’s shirt and the Atlanta star took exception, swinging at Nani’s head and making light contact. Gressel saw a yellow card for the infraction.
The Lions out-shot Atlanta, 21-15 (4-3 on target) but were wasteful with all of those efforts. Atlanta held a slight edge in possession, with 51%, and out-passed Orlando (82%-77%).
“When you look at the game overall, we’ve had enough chances to win two or three games,” O’Connor said. “You look at the guys. They’ve given everything tonight. On another evening you win four or five-nil or four or five-one.
“The biggest thing we have to do is keep creating the chances, keep getting the same level of commitment, the same effort, and persevere. If we do start taking those chances, we’ll start to give teams a good whack.”
“We created a lot of chances today,” said Pereyra, who stated after the game that he thought he might be able to go a full 90 minutes in the next match. “Against Atlanta you need to score on these chances. If not, they will have one and they will score and you lose this important game.”
Orlando City returns to the road for its next match, visiting the San Jose Earthquakes next Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET.