Junior Urso, Chris Mueller, and Nani scored to serve as exorcists, banishing the Atlanta United demons in a deserved 3-1 road win by the Lions at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Despite being the team on fewer days of rest, Orlando City (4-2-2, 14 points) showed good energy on the press and in transition and defended well overall to finally beat Atlanta United (3-4-0, 9 points).
Mueller and Urso also added assists in the match.
The Lions won their second straight match and first true road game this season, and Orlando improved to 1-6-2 in the all-time league series against Atlanta — 1-7-2 in all competitions — and 1-2-2 at Atlanta. Now that Orlando has bloodied Atlanta, maybe this series can become a rivalry.
Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the game that he was happy about the team’s commitment and energy on a short turnaround.
“The three points are the most important for the motivation,” he said. “This is the first time we beat Atlanta so we’re happy. We keep going.”
Pareja made four changes to his usual lineup, starting Pedro Gallese in net behind a back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Kyle Smith. The defensive midfield consisted of Uri Rosell and Andres Perea, behind an attacking midfield of Benji Michel, Urso, and Mueller, with Dike up top for the third consecutive match. Ruan, Sebas Mendez, and Nani started on the bench, with Mauricio Pereyra not in the 18 and Tesho Akindele not available for selection for the second consecutive match.
“It’s good news for all, knowing they took the responsibility against a very difficult rival and on a very difficult turf,” Pareja said of his young players starting in the attack. “And they had that character to come out and play that game that way. The young boys today showed the future is bright here. And the core of the players who have been getting results before, we had the opportunity to rest some of them and the boys came in and took that responsibility.”
Dike fired a shot across Atlanta’s bow in the first minute, skipping a shot just wide to the left. The rookie had a couple of players breaking and may have been better served to slip someone through but he didn’t miss by much. The Lions showed early on that they weren’t going to press as persistently as usual on short rest, instead hanging back and taking away options for goalkeeper Brad Guzan and his defenders when they tried to play out of the back.
“Today it was probably too much to ask the boys to go and press all the time,” Pareja said, due to the fixture congestion, traveling and quick turnaround. “So we considered that just giving them the ball sometimes will help us just to save some energy. That’s why I want to remark [about] the discipline defensively of the team. We knew that they would give us some space in the back and we took that.
Atlanta started to control the game about three minutes in and did so for about a solid five minutes, resulting in the game’s first corner. Brooks Lennon got onto the corner kick cross with a thunderous header but Gallese reached out one of his eight arms and made a spectacular goal-line save to keep it scoreless. The play was checked by VAR to see if it had crossed the line but it had not.
Orlando finally regained the ball and earned its own first corner in the 13th minute. Mueller sent in a perfect ball for Urso, who smashed a low header that skipped off the turf in front of Guzan and squirted through his legs for the opening goal — Urso’s first in MLS.
Urso sent a shot from outside the box just a bit wide in the 18th minute as Orlando got more of a hold on the match. Dike won a corner shortly thereafter and Mueller’s delivery found Carlos but the Brazilian was spinning a bit in the run-up and couldn’t make good contact, sending his header over in the 21st minute.
Atlanta’s Manuel Castro got his side’s second good look of the half just seconds later, dragging a shot wide of Gallese’s goal.
Perea fizzed a wicked cross through the top of the six in the 29th minute, but none of his teammates could get onto it. Then Dike won another corner off a good buildup when he took a pass from Michel and had his shot blocked behind. Atlanta cleared Mueller’s service, and as Moutinho was bringing the ball back into the area, the whistle blew for a foul on Urso, but it just looked like two Atlanta players collided with each other.
No matter, after a brief pause for the trainers to come out, Orlando scored its second. Moutinho won a ball off Guzan’s ensuing restart, sending his header to Mueller, who gathered and sent it forward to Dike in the middle. The rookie smartly played to his right for Michel and the second-year Homegrown wisely cut a pass back to Mueller, who had never stopped his run. Mueller finished into the empty net to make it 2-0 in the 35th. Mueller’s career-high sixth of the season — the most on Orlando — was a great way for the winger to celebrate his 24th birthday.
“I looked up and I thought that I was going to have a go at the outside back actually,” Mueller said about the play. “I looked up and I saw Daryl finding some space in between the two center backs, so I picked out a pass to him, and I saw that he turned and laid back [a pass] and I just continued my run and I was screaming to Benji for the ball back across because the space was so wide open and I was right there. And he found me so well and laid one on a platter and gave me the best birthday present I could have asked for.”
It was nearly Michel to Mueller again in the 41st as Benji got to the end line and crossed for Mueller, who was crashing the back post. Guzan stuck out a foot to knock the cross behind for a corner. The Lions should have made it 3-0 on the set piece, with Perea getting a free running header on the back side of the play but he sent his shot agonizingly wide of the net in the 42nd minute.
Atlanta failed to do much with a pair of late set pieces and the teams went to the break with the Lions ahead, 2-0. Orlando led in shots (7-4) and shots on goal (2-1), with both teams completing 84% of their passes and Atlanta holding a slim possession advantage (51.5%).
The Five Stripes dominated possession in the second half. Orlando stayed organized and looked for counter opportunities, coming close a few times before finally getting a late insurance goal.
Pity Martinez was dangerous throughout the second half, shooting from everywhere and nearly breaking in behind the defense multiple times. Jansson denied him getting in alone with a vital tackle early in the second half and good team defending prevented him getting a shot off in the box a few minutes later.
Lennon got off a glancing header in the 55th minute off a corner kick but it was well off target. Martinez then sent in either a shot or a cross. Gallese came off his line to grab it before being fouled by Adam Jahn.
Atlanta continued to look for offense and brought Cubo Torres and Ezequiel Barco on in the 60th minute. Orlando, which had been struggling to keep possession, brought on Nani and Sebas Mendez for Dike and an exhausted-looking Rosell.
Nani quickly got involved, getting whistled for a foul after taking an elbow from Torres that split his lip open. That led to a prolonged spell of possession and set pieces in the attacking third for Atlanta. Gallese made a good play to get up and tip a dangerous shot from Barco over the bar in the 66th minute.
The Lions finally got forward and won a counter shortly after that and this time the cross found Jansson at the near post but his flick skipped wide of the far post in the 69th minute on what would have been a nice goal for the Beefy Swede.
Disaster struck for Orlando in the 75th minute. Mendez headed a ball back toward his own goal and Gallese had time and space to come out and pick it up. Either Moutinho didn’t hear the Octopus calling him off or he just wanted to be safe, and the Portuguese left back sent an emphatic clearance out of play but was injured in the process. He was in obvious pain and holding his groin area and had to be stretchered off the field. Kamal Miller came on to replace him.
Michel put the ball in the net on a quick counter in the 81st minute but he was correctly ruled offside and the game remained at 2-0. That only lasted two more minutes, as the Five Stripes took advantage of Moutinho’s replacement.
Second-half sub Jurgen Damm received the ball on the right for Atlanta and faked toward the end line, then faked back the other way. Miller overplayed to block the cross and Damm went back toward the end line to get his cross in cleanly. Lennon peeled back off of Smith and looped a header inside the post to make it 2-1 in the 83rd minute.
Ruan nearly pulled that goal back a minute later, getting a touch to a good cross right in front, but it skipped wide of the post. But the Lions sealed the game two minutes later. The Atlanta defense played the ball to Martinez, who had been dropping deep to get on the ball and start the attack. Urso recognized this as his moment and pounced, dispossessing Martinez and breaking in on goal. As Guzan faced him up, Nani called for the ball on the left and Urso slid it over for the captain to finish. His third of the season made it 3-1 in the 86th minute.
“I know he don’t like when we pressure behind him,” Urso said of Martinez. “So I just waited for a good moment to try to take the ball, to recover the ball for us. When the defender gave it to him I knew it was a good moment to take the ball for us. So I tried to take it. And when I was in front of the keeper, if Nani doesn’t ask me, 100% I will shoot because I have a good position to score. But when I heard his voice, I know he’s free so I have to think about the team first. So I passed to Nani and he was happy and scored one more goal for us.”
“Today’s performance from Junior — not starting the last game — was incredible and another level of commitment from the team,” Pareja said.
The Lions got a scare in the 88th minute when Carlos cleared a bouncing ball, jumping high into the air. After the clearance, Lennon collided with the Brazilian’s foot and went down. The referee went over to review the replay but ruled that it was a legal play by Orlando City’s center back and no penalty was given.
From there, Orlando survived a few Atlanta set pieces, a shot off the crossbar by Barco in the 96th minute, and 10 minutes of stoppage time. The Lions heard the whistle and finally had their first win of the series.
Atlanta finished with more shots (11-10), shots on target (4-3), possession (61.3%), and corners (9-6), and out-passed Orlando (86%-79%). But the Lions made the most of enough of their opportunities to get the victory.
“It was a tough grind,” Mueller said. “I think that we put in a really good team performance. Obviously we had some guys rotated in there and I think everybody from top to bottom played an unbelievable game and I’m just so happy for the guys as well.”
It’s another quick turnaround for Orlando as the Lions will make the trip to Tennessee to face Nashville SC away on Wednesday night.
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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