Orlando City finished its two-match road swing with a trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to play Atlanta United on Sunday afternoon. The start was a bright one for Orlando City, culminating in Mauricio Pereyra’s free kick goal in the 10th minute. Things did not continue on that track afterwards, with the Lions fortunate to only concede once in a 1-1 draw.
Here’s what I took away from the match.
One Ain’t Enough
For the second time in a week, the Lions scored the first goal of the match and then didn’t do a lot afterwards. Regardless of what “they” say about a two-goal lead in soccer, I’ll take one of those any day of the week. And three would be even better. Orlando City has struggled to score goals for the majority of the 2022 season and one on the road is rarely going to lead to victory. A second goal against Colorado was much more likely than it was against Atlanta, given how the two matches unfolded. However, that second never came in either game and it amounted to four valuable points dropped, which is the difference between the Lions sitting fifth in the table, where they are now, and nine points behind Philadelphia, and sitting third — just five points out of first with a chance to get three points closer this Saturday when the Union visit Exploria Stadium. More goals please.
Pereyra’s goal may have been helped by two colossal Atlanta errors, but it was still a moment of magic. Taylor Twellman can (and did) complain about the “softness” of the call, and it’s true that players who lose the ball rarely get a call in the aftermath of a poor touch, but I don’t see that Victor Rivas had any choice but to call that foul. Facundo Torres — who struggled with his touch and his decision making throughout this match, although whether the former was due to heavy legs or the unfamiliar surface of Atlanta’s fake plastic grass, I don’t know — got booted pretty hard in the leg. Whether a player has the ball or has just fumbled it away isn’t the determining factor on what constitutes a foul. That was a legit call and an unfortunate play for Atlanta.
The bigger issue was with Rocco Rios Novo’s awareness. The Atlanta goalkeeper was apparently still trying to set up his wall when the whistle blew to start play. Pereyra didn’t immediately hit his shot. There were a good couple of seconds that went by with Rios Novo remaining behind his wall when the captain took his kick. And even if the keeper had been aligned properly, Pereyra’s shot was so good, it’s unlikely it would have been saved. That thing hit the inside netting inside the left post. It was an outstanding free kick and maybe Pereyra’s best since joining the team. If the goalkeeper being misaligned spoils it for some, I feel for their inability to experience joy.
Bright Start Quickly Fizzled
The Lions came out of the gate as the protagonists of the match that Oscar Pareja wants them to be. Orlando City controlled play early, won multiple set pieces, and made one of them pay off. But after the goal, the game completely switched. The Five Stripes controlled play for most of the remainder of the game. While the Lions did well to limit Atlanta’s ability to fashion anything threatening through the first half, it was clear that the hosts were far more likely to score than Orlando. The Lions have been largely toothless in transition this season, often peeling back and playing patiently at the first sign of pressure. But even transition opportunities aren’t going to materialize when outlet passes are offline or are predictable enough to allow defenders to cut them off.
Things got worse in the second half when the hosts realized they could easily sacrifice a fullback and a midfielder and add more bite to the attack. That’s when they started making life much more difficult for the Orlando defense and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who came up big again. It’s hard to blame short rest for Orlando getting pinned back when Atlanta played the same number of days before. Sure, the Lions had to travel, but the difference shouldn’t have been so pronounced. Atlanta has had issues getting outnumbered in the back in 2022 but Orlando couldn’t mount any kind of counterattack and the hosts grew more comfortable as the game went on. Essentially, Orlando was on its heels for 80 minutes and only handled its defensive duties well for the first 35 of those minutes.
Changes Didn’t Work
Pareja often goes to five in the back to add an extra player to clog passing lanes and deal with crosses as a means of seeing out games. Wednesday at Colorado, he used that to try to help the fullbacks, who the Rapids were abusing — particularly Kyle Smith, who struggled to deal with Sam Nicholson, only to then be stuck with a better replacement in Michael Barrios. Smith was again getting picked on Sunday but the change to bring on Antonio Carlos was an attempt to provide more opportunities to outlet to an actual player — having the option of the three central defenders sending outlet passes to a wingback or a midfielder rather than just the midfielders — and it just didn’t work. The back line was forced to play desperation kickball even with the additional wide options due to the intense Atlanta pressure and inability of the midfielders to string together a pass or two to give them a chance to regroup. The defenders had no sooner booted the ball up the field than they had to focus on who to pick up as the Five Stripes charged at them again. Tesho Akindele’s introduction for Ercan Kara was never going to work because the Lions couldn’t work the ball up the field far enough to find a forward anyway. Andres Perea’s introduction cost the team a goal because he kept his runner onside and also didn’t bother to track him or defend anyone on that set piece.
Sometimes Pareja gets the subs just right, but Sunday was not one of those days where his players were able to turn his ideas into reality. This likely was more to do with execution and circumstance than with the strategy, but either way, it didn’t come off as intended.
El Pulpo for President
For the second straight game, Orlando City’s outfield players can thank Pedro Gallese for the team getting anything from the match. Gallese was coming off a performance in Colorado that got him on the MLS Team of the Week. He was just as vital on Sunday with a couple of enormous saves late in the game to preserve the draw. He couldn’t do anything about the free header goal on the set piece, but he stopped a 2-v-1 down the stretch and absolutely robbed former Lion Dom Dwyer with one of the prettier saves in Orlando City history. His flying, one-handed stop of Dwyer’s drive should be immortalized on a poster, suitable for framing. That was the one that truly showed Gallese’s quality and athleticism.
That’s what stuck out to me from Sunday’s game. What did you see? Let me know in the comments section below.