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.