Orlando City fell behind twice but showed resiliency to bounce back and claim a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Atlanta United at Exploria Stadium. Nani’s 87th-minute winner completed the comeback after Kyle Smith and Silvester van der Water had brought the Lions (8-4-4, 28 points) back from two one-goal deficits against the rival Five Stripes (2-6-8, 14 points).
With the win, Orlando City has now gone six consecutive matches without a loss to their northern rivals (3-0-3) and climbed back to second in the Eastern Conference race, at least for the moment.
“Obviously excited. Happy to see the players celebrate with our fans in a difficult victory but in the end a victory that means a lot for us,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the game. “It’s been a difficult week for us. It’s well known that the performance we had last week, we needed to just erase and then learn from it and bounce back. Many things needed to happen. The players were incredible today.”
Pareja gave Homegrown goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar his first MLS start in goal behind a back line of Smith, a masked Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Uri Rosell and Andres Perea started in central midfield, with Chris Mueller and Mauricio Pereyra facilitating the attack and Nani and Benji Michel up top. Junior Urso made the game day squad on the bench. Tesho Akindele, who played last night for Canada in Austin, TX, also was on the bench for Orlando.
Orlando got forward in the opening seconds and Ruan was dangerous from the get-go but when a cross didn’t find its intended target, Atlanta scored going the other way. A quick cross from Brooks Lennon on the left found Martinez near the top of the box and he sent a rocket off the right post that caromed in. The visitors led before the first minute of the match had expired.
“Just trying to get through some hurdles there,” Pareja said of his team falling behind twice. “The first goal that they scored in the first 30-45 seconds and then we needed to overcome that. And then also the second goal was a difficult moment. But I think we showed what the team is made of. The players need all the recognition, and seriously today they won a very important match — not just the three points, but just the way they brought things back. It’s a credit for them.”
The Lions should have pulled that goal right back in the third minute. Ruan got down the right and had Michel breaking in alone at the back post but the Brazilian hit his cross too hard and it skipped through the box before Michel could get onto it, wasting a tap-in opportunity.
Ruan had a go himself in the 15th minute, firing Orlando’s first shot on goal but hitting it right at goalkeeper Alec Kann. A minute later, Stajduhar came up big to stop a shot from Erik Lopez at the other end as the game went back and forth.
Michel thought he’d tied the match in the 21st minute but Kann did well to make a sprawling, one-armed save. Atlanta immediately earned a corner at the other end and the Lions inexplicably left Martinez uncovered, but the Atlanta striker headed well over the bar. Carlos headed just wide on an Orlando corner in the 27th as the two teams continued battling end to end.
Michel struggled with his touch and his finishing throughout the first half. Nani tried to send him in alone in the 29th minute but he couldn’t control it. He was getting into dangerous positions but just couldn’t find the handle at the critical moment. In the 39th minute Ruan set him up right in front but Michel hit his shot right at Kann, and when the rebound came back to him, he couldn’t dig it out of his feet and the goalkeeper was able to regather it.
Ruan again got down the right in the 42nd minute and without a good option in front he sent a hard, low shot on target from a tight angle. Kann made the save, but the Lions scored on the ensuing corner kick. Nani sent his service across the box and Smith went low to get his head to it, knocking it past Kann to tie the match at 1-1 in the 43rd minute. It was Smith’s first goal with Orlando City.
“I was making a late run in the box and then I was just trying to keep moving to create space for myself if a ball did come in that I could hit,” Smith said. “That’s what happened and the ball comes in and two people I think jumped in front of me, and so neither one of them headed it, so I didn’t even really have to jump, and after that I just tried to get as much power on it as I could, and keep it low so that I knew the goalie would have trouble with it, and it worked.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve scored a goal. I haven’t scored a goal for this club yet, going on about three years now, so I was very happy and glad I could tie things up for us in an important part of the game before half.”
The Lions kept coming at the end of the half and Mueller nearly gave Orlando the lead in stoppage time but Kann robbed him blind with a huge save on the goal line.
The teams went to the break all knotted up.
Orlando generated more shots (9-4) and shots on target (7-2) and passed more accurately (90.9%-86.7%). Atlanta held slightly more possession (51.8%-48.2%) and had more corners (3-2).
Nani won a corner early in the second half as the Lions continued to get forward in the attack. Pereyra sent a ball well wide of goal while falling after a rare mistake by Kann trying to play a cross. The Uruguayan lost his balance trying to change directions to get on the ball just outside the area and couldn’t get the effort on target. Ruan won another corner in the 53rd minute as he continued to give Atlanta problems down the wing.
Atlanta regained the lead against the run of play in the 66th minute. Pereyra made an ill-advised play to allow a pass across the midfield to go through him, but Nani couldn’t get onto it in time and Atlanta caught the Lions with Ruan and Mueller too far up field. Marcelino Moreno got the ball with time and space on the left corner of the area, cut to his right and smashed a ball just inside the upper right corner where Stajduhar couldn’t reach it, putting Atlanta up 2-1.
The Lions continued to earn set pieces and get half chances, but the game changed in the 74th minute when Pareja sent on van der Water and Akindele for Rosell and Mueller. Van der Water nearly made an impact four minutes later when he got into space but Pereyra’s pass was a rocket that he couldn’t settle. However, he changed the match a minute later. Pereyra sent a beautiful ball over the top to Michel on the left. Benji headed the ball across the box and van der Water was there to head it past Kann to tie the match at 2-2 in the 79th minute.
Smith turned over the ball in his own end moments later and gave Atlanta a chance to regain the lead again from a corner kick. The cross was low and deflected to Anton Walkes, who hit his shot just wide of the goal in the 82nd minute, although it appeared Stajduhar may have had it covered.
Orlando finally took the lead in the 87th minute. Van der Water got the ball on the right, cut back to the corner of the box and sent in a dangerous cross. Nani timed his run perfectly, got his head on the cross, and knocked it past Kann to make it 3-2 with his eighth goal of the season.
“It’s important to let you all know, and the fans, that Silvester has done a great effort trying to adjust to many things,” Pareja said of the evening’s star substitute. “I think he’s doing a good job in learning but it takes some time. Last week he presented some tightness. He needed to come out from the game. During the week he had that tightness and he was brave to be part of the game today despite that difficulty that he had, and I think the game rewarded him tonight. He’s an important player. We brought him to do those things. Silvester today he came in and showed us all the potential that he has and I’m very happy for him.”
The Lions saw out five minutes of stoppage time with the help of Urso and Joey DeZart, who came on for Nani and Pereyra, and prevented the Five Stripes from mounting any kind of danger down the stretch.
Orlando out-shot Atlanta 15-6 (9-3 on target), earned more corners (6-4), and passed more accurately (88.5%-85.1%). The Five Stripes managed a bit more possession (50.8%-49.2%).
“We needed to win, especially after the last match in New York City,” Smith said. “It was a big, big, win for us, so I’m very excited for all of us (and) excited to score my first goal in my career in the MLS.”
Stajduhar had only one save but it was a big one and he couldn’t do anything about either of the goals as he earned his first MLS win. As a cancer survivor, it was an emotional moment for the Homegrown Player to get his first start and first victory in front of friends and family.
“It was a great feeling just to get the win — obviously that, most importantly — and then it feels like a big weight off my shoulders,” Stajduhar said. “It’s almost been six years to make my debut, so I’m very happy. It felt just so natural and right in front of The Wall. Unfortunately they banged in a goal first 45 seconds. That’s how it rolls sometimes but we got the win and that’s what matters.”
Orlando City will host its second straight rival on Wednesday when Inter Miami visits for the season’s second Tropic Thunder match.