Orlando City generated better opportunities in a defensive struggle on opening day against Atlanta United, but ultimately had to settle for a 0-0 draw at Exploria Stadium. The Lions drew on opening day for the sixth time in seven years, with the only non-draw coming 2017 when they beat New York City FC in the first game ever at Exploria.
With the draw, Orlando is unbeaten in its last five games against Atlanta United, and is now 2-6-5 (W-L-D) in the all-time series in league play and 2-7-5 in all competitions. Orlando City starts the season 0-0-1 yet again.
“Good match. It was back and forth,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “In the second half, I think we had more balance. In the middle we started just creating more numerical superiority and I did like the team. But the game was intense. We found a good team in front of us and we’re going to take the point and start our season this way.”
Pareja did not have Uri Rosell or Robin Jansson (both have the dreaded lower body injury), so Pedro Gallese looked out at a back line of Kyle Smith, Rodrigo Schlegel, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Sebas Mendez and Junior Urso played central midfield, with Nani, Chris Mueller, Tesho Akindele, and Alexandre Pato as attacking options.
The first half looked like a typical opening game. There were good passages of play but things broke down when players tried to read the game and thread passes in tighter spaces in the final third. There were fouls on both ends that Jair Marrufo let go, which perhaps prevented some chances as well, as the veteran referee was not in the mood to blow the whistle early in this one.
Orlando got an opportunity 15 minutes in when Urso was sent into the box but he took an extra touch and that allowed the defense to knock the ball away for a corner. Four minutes later, Ruan cut inside and had a shot blocked which would have fallen to Mueller had he not been knocked down. Marrufo wasn’t interested in making a call. Urso fired well over the bar in the 25th minute as the Lions continued to lack sharpness in the final third, and link-up play with Pato too often seemed to be two players looking for something different.
Pato nearly got behind the defense in the 28th minute, but he had his run cut off just outside the box. Again, Marrufo wasn’t interested. Nani got the first shot on goal in the game when the Atlanta defense gave him too much space and his shot was headed inside the right post but Brad Guzan made the save.
Smith conceded a couple of free kicks after a bright start, allowing Atlanta a few set piece opportunities but nothing came of them. An Atlanta shot was deflected wide from the top of the box to set up a corner and the entry ball was headed wide by Marcelino Moreno.
Urso and Mueller each failed to get a header on target from set pieces as the first half wound down and the last good opportunity saw Jake Mulraney cut inside and fire a shot that Gallese saved comfortably on Atlanta’s first shot on target.
Atlanta had more shots (6-5), with each team getting one on target, won more corners (4-2), held more possession (59.1%-40.9%), and passed more accurately (88.5%-84.7%).
“The nerves were kind of there in the first half,” Mueller said. “It was, you know, pretty frantic. It was all over the place.”
Andres Perea came on for Akindele after the halftime break and Orlando looked more fluid in the attack. Atlanta continued to have more of the ball, which was fine with the Lions, who did a good job of keeping everything wide and preventing the visitors from generating much of a threat.
Perea’s first touch nearly opened the scoring. Mueller centered a pass to him and Perea fired but his shot was straight at Guzan, who made the save. Moments later, Ruan zigzagged down the right side and won a corner. Carlos got his head to the cross but hit it straight down and it bounced wide of goal. Perea then tried to pick out Pato in the box in the 51st minute but the Atlanta defense was able to knock it away before it could find the Brazilian.
“In the second half we (were) much more balanced in the middle,” Pareja said. “We need a player who can mix the energy there, who can bring us some legs too. Andres knows how to do it. He has a lot of glue, he has a lot of range, and we needed to stop his number five (Santiago Sosa), who is a key player for them and Andres did that job. So we cut that connection and we started increasing ours, and stretching Pato as the number nine as well. It just gave us some space and more creativity in that part of the field, and that’s that’s why we created the best options in the game.”
Atlanta’s first look came in the 57th minute when George Bello jumped into the play and got into the box. Schlegel came over to pressure him and the fullback’s shot went wide.
Mendez nearly got in alone in the box three minutes later but Guzan came off his line to smother the ball first. Two minutes later, Orlando nearly scored. The ball was pinging around with Pato and Mendez in front of goal, and it was the midfielder who ended up trying a spinning shot but he hit it wide. Had Pato been able to get there instead it was likely a goal.
Both teams started substituting between the 60th and 75th minutes, trying to find an edge to take control of the game. Benji Michel came on for Nani on the Orlando side.
The Lions came closest to scoring in the 72nd minute, when a cross from Mueller on the left found Pato in the middle. The Brazilian shot with his first touch and his attempt came off a defender and then hit the outstretched arm of Guzan, who scrambled on top of the rebound as it was rolling toward the goal line.
Pato went down with an injury in the 78th minute on a play without contact. He jumped to avoid what could have been an absolutely devastating tackle at the top of the box and went down after he landed, holding the back of his knee. He was able to walk off under his own power but was forced out of the game, making way for Silvester van der Water’s MLS debut.
“Good game for Alex,” Pareja said of Pato’s debut. “That commitment that he has with his team. He tried to create from that zone where we put him in the first half. I think we could find those spaces and then he is very crafty with the ball and created some chances for us. Second half as well, when we stretched him as a number nine. We had the best of him, put him in front of the goal twice. The doctors will evaluate what happened. We don’t have the diagnosis yet.”
Josef Martinez came on for Atlanta but didn’t do much. He did get onto a set piece but headed it well wide of goal on the last decent look for either side. In the end, the two southeast rivals had to settle for a point apiece.
Each team fired 11 shots and got three on target. Atlanta held more possession (59.7%-40.3%), had more corners (4-3), and was more accurate in passing (88%-82.2%).
“I think it was good to get back out there and try and catch some of our rhythm,” Mueller said. “I think it was obviously difficult conditions, just with the heat and everything. I think that we lacked a little bit of quality moving forward and in our positioning. I think that it would be really helpful for us to look at the film and see the areas where we can improve for next week, but overall it felt nice to get back out there and get some minutes under our legs and we’re definitely looking to build on that moving forward.”
The Lions will head out on the road for their second game, traveling to face Sporting Kansas City next Friday at 8 p.m. ET.