Orlando City

Orlando City vs. Arsenal, International Friendly: Final Score 3-1 as Lions Fall vs. Gunners



Orlando City played like the better side for 45 minutes in a midseason friendly against Arsenal, but the English Premier League giants took control in the second half en route to a 3-1 win over the Lions at Exploria Stadium. Facundo Torres canceled out an early Arsenal goal but Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson scored after the hour mark to put the match away.

“That exposure today was positive,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said about the club’s showing. “I think in the first half especially, we had a lot of personality. And I’ve gotta say that probably we were the best team on the field. And then we knew who is Arsenal and after that they started getting on top of us.”

The start of the match was delayed by more than an hour due to lightning in the vicinity of the stadium. Fans huddled on the concourse or waited in their cars through a heavy downpour, and nearly every time it seemed the skies would calm, another lightning strike came. Eventually, Mother Nature let the lads play.

Pareja’s lineup included a lot of starters despite the heavy weather and congested fixture schedule, offering Arsenal the respect of at least beginning the game with close to a full-strength starting XI. Pedro Gallese started in goal behind a back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Michael Halliday. Cesar Araujo was joined in central midfield by Andres Perea, behind an attacking midfield line of Jake Mulraney, Torres, and Benji Michel, with Alexandre Pato as the striker.

Many fans were surprised to see so many regulars — and some key starters play a lot — in the midst of a heavy schedule. Pareja said he rested Mauricio Pereyra and Ercan Kara as a precautionary measure but wanted some players who needed to regain their rhythm some minutes — particularly Carlos, Pato, Perea, and Moutinho, who saw his first minutes since pulling up prior to the road game at Cincinnati.

“You always want to compete,” Pareja said. “They don’t want to lose games. They want to compete. They don’t want to come off. They want to stay (in the game). It was a great experience for the club.”

Halliday mostly played well, particularly in the opening 20 or 25 minutes, although he did show his inexperience a few times. One of his few errors was when he had a good chance to get in a cross with the Lions in transition and didn’t hit it well, sending it over everyone.

“It’s crazy to me, being so young and just coming into it so quickly, like with the national team, getting minutes there, building experience, and then hopping from there into playing vs. Arsenal,” Halliday said. “I’m critical to myself on mistakes I make, but a pretty solid performance, but I definitely want more and I think a lot of that just comes with more experience and more minutes played.” 

It didn’t take the Premier League side long to score but it was unlucky for Orlando. Gabriel Martinelli played a nice 1-2 with Sambi Lokango and fired the return pass toward goal. The ball hit Carlos in the back and changed directions, which gave Gallese no chance to stop it and Arsenal was up 1-0 just five minutes in.

Orlando kept its shape well in the first half and the Lions were accurate with long balls and switches, which led to more chances than the visitors. Pato had a great opportunity in the 10th minute but got under his shot and sent it into the stands. Michel’s pass to him bounced and the forward just didn’t make good contact.

Michel should have leveled the game in the 24th minute when Torres sent him a good through ball. The Orlando Homegrown Player was away for a breakaway but fired straight at goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, who made the save to preserve the Gunners’ lead. Michel and other Lions were able to take advantage of Arsenal center backs Rob Holding and Pablo Mari throughout the first half, particularly with direct balls and timely switches of play.

Torres tied the match five minutes later. Taking a good long ball from Carlos, he fired from the top of the semicircle just outside the area and sent a perfect strike inside the right post to tie the match at 1-1.

Araujo did well to block a shot by Eddie Nketiah off an Arsenal corner kick in the 37th minute to keep things level.

Perea was teed up at the top of the area in the 44th minute but he sent his shot into the upper deck, paying his respects to Carlos Rivas.

Arsenal had the last decent look in first-half stoppage, as Nketiah did well to free himself up in the box for a shot but hit it wide of the right post. The teams went to the break level at 1-1.

Orlando City held more possession (55%-45%), won more corners (2-1), attempted more shots (5-3), and got more on target (3-1). The Lions were also more accurate in the passing game (86.4%-85.7%).

The energy changed a bit after the break, possibly because Arsenal brought on Gabriel Jesus, who fired his first shot attempt in the first minute of the second half, but it was straight at Gallese.

Mulraney made a good move to beat his defender in the 52nd minute but his cross in for Michel was too close to substitute goalkeeper Matt Turner.

A minute later, Jesus fired a shot from distance that seemed to catch Gallese a bit off guard. He made the save but couldn’t control the rebound, which resulted in an Arsenal corner but the Lions dealt with that. The visitors stayed on the front foot, with Nuno Tavares firing into the upper deck in the 57th minute. A minute later, Gallese made a big save on Nketiah in front and then had to knock aside an overzealous back pass from Halliday.

Arsenal regained the lead in the 66th minute during a scramble in the box. Substitute Kyle Smith slid across the area and tried to clear but only succeeded in teeing up a shot for Nketiah to knock into the net, making it 2-1.

The Lions tried to pull that goal back in the 71st minute when Tesho Akindele made a great move to get by a defender and picked out Michel with a good cross. Benji chested it down and then…well, I think he tried to play the ball over a defender to himself, but he didn’t come close to pulling it off, and the chance evaporated.

After another miss by Tavares from outside the box in the 79th minute, Arsenal put the match away. Reiss Nelson was left unattended by Ruan in the box and when the ball came to him, it was an easy finish. The Gunners led 3-1 in the 80th.

Granit Xhaka narrowly missed a free kick in the 86th minute and Gallese made a big save late on Nelson to prevent the final tally from getting any worse.

Arsenal turned all of the statistical advantages around in the second half, finishing with more possession (56.6%-43.4%), shots (19-5), shots on target (11-3), corners (4-2), and passing accuracy (90.3%-82.7%).

One of the main reasons Arsenal emerged in the second half was the introduction of starters Jesus, Xhaka, Martin Odegaard, and center backs Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba. The more solidified Gunners were going up against more tired starters and an assortment of substitutes that were either backups, OCB players, or — in the case of Ruan — just plain switched off.

In the end, the result doesn’t matter much and Orlando City at least acquitted itself well against a top European side.

“I was happy to see a very enjoyable game for the fans and against a fantastic rival,” Pareja said. “I was proud and ready to move on to the next one.”

With the friendly out of the way, Orlando City can focus on Saturday’s huge home match against the Philadelphia Union.


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