Some draws feel like wins and others feel like losses. Tonight’s 1-1 draw at Exploria Stadium will go firmly into the latter for Orlando City. The Lions (4-2-4, 16 points) squandered numerous scoring chances throughout the game and made a deadly late turnover that gave Atlanta United (3-4-2, 11 points) the possession needed to steal a point late. Benji Michel put the Lions ahead in first-half stoppage time, but Adam Jahn’s header in second-half stoppage gave the visitors a point they had no business taking home.
Where a point might have once felt good against Atlanta, it certainly doesn’t tonight as the Lions owned this match and simply threw away far too many good opportunities to put it away. Orlando City is now 1-6-3 in the all-time series against Atlanta (1-7-3 in all competitions), and the Lions got their first ever point at home against the Five Stripes, “improving” to 0-4-1 at Exploria Stadium in the series.
“We have to put the games away when we can,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match, referring to the team’s lack of finishing. “It’s an ongoing process but the players know deep inside that they had a great game today. But we’re not there yet and we’re going to keep working.”
Pareja’s starting XI included Pedro Gallese in goal as usual, with Kamal Miller filling in for the injured Joao Moutinho at left back, alongside Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Uri Rosell and Sebas Mendez manned the central midfield with attacking midfielders Chris Mueller, Michel, and Mauricio Pereyra. Daryl Dike started up top.
Atlanta started the match pressing frantically to try to turn the Lions over, but Orlando handled it well and kept most of the ball for the opening 10 minutes. Mendez was set up nicely at the top of the area in the fourth minute, but he popped his shot high into the air and over the goal. The Lions looked to have a good counter going shortly after that, but Ruan sent his cross into the seats.
Once Atlanta got the ball, the Five Stripes started to keep it and hold onto it, probing for scoring chances. Orlando got whistled for several fouls to set up free kicks, helping the Five Stripes get set pieces, but they weren’t able to do much with them.
Mueller found some space outside the area in the middle in the 17th minute but didn’t get all of his shot, giving Brad Guzan an easy save.
Gallese made a save on Cubo Torres in the 27th minute after Mendez gambled during a double-team and ran past the Atlanta striker, igniting the opposition’s break.
After two weak shot attempts earlier in the game, Mendez nearly scored in the 34th minute, redirecting a cross from Michel toward the near post. Guzan stuck out a foot at the last second to make a vital save.
Orlando kept creating chances off of turnovers but not doing much with them. Mueller sent a great inside-out cross through the area for Michel in the 37th minute but Benji fired wide under heavy pressure from the defense. His shouts for a penalty went unheeded by the referee.
In the 39th minute, Orlando worked the ball up the left side and Mueller was fouled behind the play. With Dike on the ball and Orlando seemingly poised for an excellent scoring chance, the referee stopped play for no apparent reason and pulled the play back for a free kick. Carlos headed wide on the ensuing free kick.
Michel got inside in the 44th minute but he couldn’t get his shot on target and another chance was wasted. But the Lions finally broke through in first-half stoppage time.
A corner kick cross fell in the box and Dike was the first to react, spinning and firing toward goal. The shot was going to go wide but instead it hit Michel and deflected past Guzan to make it 1-0. Atlanta appealed for an offside call but Anton Walkes was clearly keeping Michel onside and the Lions took a lead into the break. It was Michel’s second goal in as many games and Dike’s third assist of the season.
Orlando finished the first half leading in shots (11-3), shots on goal (3-2), and passing percentage (81%-76%), but Atlanta held more possession (52.2%).
The Lions nearly conceded right out of the locker room again, which has been an issue this season. Torres headed just wide from in front, as Carlos had followed his man across the formation in the buildup, but his teammates failed to adequately cover for him.
Orlando City then created two more opportunities in the 50th but wasted them. On the first, Ruan made mincemeat of his defender at the end line but saw his cross cut out and on the second Michel nearly got in behind but George Bello made a last-ditch tackle to deny the shot.
Gallese comfortably denied Ezequiel Barco’s free kick attempt in the 62nd minute.
In the 67th minute, Orlando again failed to convert an excellent chance. Mueller sent Michel in to the area and the second-year player waited to make a decision, taking an extra touch. By the time he decided to shoot, Michel scuffed the shot and a golden opportunity didn’t even threaten Guzan in goal.
Nani, who entered the game as a second-half substitute, nearly doubled the lead in the 79th on a free kick after Junior Urso was taken down on the counter. Nani — who Pareja said hadn’t been starting the last couple of matches due to some inflammation in his groin — fired a shot off the left post. Urso got a touch on the rebound’s high bounce, with a gaping wide net, but he couldn’t make good contact with it and the Atlanta defense cleared it before it could cross the line.
Jahn nearly tied the game a minute later, splitting the two center backs and getting his head to a cross but he hit it at Gallese, who was well positioned to make the save.
The Lions appeared to be in control and comfortable as time wound down but a turnover changed the game’s outcome in stoppage time. Miller played a dangerous pass up the middle rather than safely to the side, where his teammates were directing him to go. His pass instead went straight into the feet of Emerson Hyndman, giving up possession unnecessarily. Atlanta poured numbers forward and the ball cycled over to the left to late sub Jake Mulraney, who fired in a cross. Miller ended up on Jahn and failed to deal with the forward, who got up and smashed a header into the corner where Gallese couldn’t reach it, tying the game in the 92nd minute.
Orlando fashioned one more good chance as Nani got to a bit of an off-line pass and toe-poked it across for Ruan on the right. Ruan had a good look but fizzed his shot wide of Guzan’s goal and time ran out moments later.
The Lions out-shot Atlanta 15-9, but the visitors were sharper, getting more on target (6-4). Atlanta’s passing improved while Orlando’s tailed off, with the Five Stripes finishing with an 85%-83% advantage to go along with 55.9% of the possession.
Dike called the 1-1 final “a pretty frustrating result.”
“You know, we fought really hard the entire game we had a lot of a lot of chances to go and finish,” he said. “I mean, you know, things aren’t always going to bounce your way. So, you know, on to the next one. I think maybe historically you know, the rivalry here, Atlanta sometimes might have come out on top and I think it says a lot about the expectations we have on ourselves that a draw isn’t enough for us anymore — that we expect to win every single game.”
“This week we just need to have a good week of practice, prepare for Miami, and then put this game behind us,” said Kyle Smith.
“Now we have a week to prepare our game against Miami, which is a tough rival also,” Pareja said. “But for sure is going to help us to recover some of the players because it has been tough activity for them with no resting.”
There’s just one match left on the schedule as announced so far, with the Lions hosting Inter Miami next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. to close Phase 1.