Orlando City’s first-ever Concacaf Champions League campaign came to an end Wednesday night. The Lions drew Tigres UANL 1-1 at Exploria Stadium, but exited the competition on the away goals rule. Now that I’ve had some time to process OCSC’s inaugural campaign in the continental competition, I wanted to summarize my thoughts on the two games Orlando played, and speculate on what we can learn and predict based on those 180 minutes.
For starters, the club, players, and fans can — and absolutely should — hold their heads high. Tigres was quite possibly the toughest draw the Lions could have been given in the first round. The Mexican outfit has the most expensive roster in the tournament, and they’re frequently among the best teams, if not the best team, Mexico has to offer. Orlando went toe to toe with Los Tigres over 180 minutes, and the overall performance is one that the team can be proud of. You only have to look at Austin FC’s debacle against an inspirational AC Violette side to see that things could have gone much, much worse.
With that being said, I think its fair to say that Tigres is, and was the better team over 180 minutes. I found this to be particularly pronounced from my place in The Wall on Wednesday night. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell on the broadcast, but watching live I was struck by how the Tigres players seemed quicker, more physical, and more technical than their Orlando counterparts. Some of the Lions’ sloppiness can maybe be attributed to nerves and only being a few games into their season, but to my eye the Mexican side simply enjoyed a physical superiority that was always going to make this one an uphill battle.
The Lions having a chance at all in this tie was in large part to Pedro Gallese. He might very well be in the best vein of form that he’s ever had in an Orlando City jersey, and his 15 saves across the two matches made for an absurd performance, with some truly exceptional stops to keep the Lions in the fight.
That’s why it’s such a shame that OCSC wasn’t able to muster more on the offensive end of things. I’m willing to give a bit of a pass to the first leg at El Volcan. Getting a scoreless draw in that environment is a perfectly acceptable result, and it’s something that I think most of us were, and are, happy with. What will inspire regret is the missed chances at Exploria on Wednesday. Ivan Angulo’s shot missed the target by what looked like mere inches, and Ramiro Enrique could only fire right at Nahuel Guzman, while Facundo Torres had a shot deflected straight into the goalkeeper’s arms. Duncan McGuire couldn’t put the last kick of the game on target with Guzman out of his net, and it was somewhat ironic that Ercan Kara was able to convert the most difficult chance of the whole tie.
The missed chances will sting, because while I thought Tigres was better over the 180 minutes of play, Orlando absolutely did enough get past them into the second round. Gallese stood tall, the Lions rode their luck a little bit, and created some of the best chances the team has had through its first five games of the year. But, against teams like Tigres, the margins are razor thin, and Orlando simply wasn’t as clinical as it needed to be.
While it’s still early, I was a little troubled by the performances of Facu, Mauricio Pereyra and Martin Ojeda Wednesday night. Torres seemed to often be taking several touches too many before releasing the ball, and Ojeda found it difficult to get involved. Pereyra left me the most concerned though. His yellow came as a result of simply not being able to keep up with the Tigres midfield, and his dwindling mobility and pace were more pronounced on the night. It shouldn’t be as much of a problem against MLS opposition, but I do wonder how he’ll hold up against teams with energetic and dynamic players in the center of the park. Still, its too early to make lasting judgments.
I will say that things seemed to pick up once Dagur Dan Thorhallsson and Ercan Kara entered the fray. Having a big target man to lump the ball forward to as time was winding down undoubtedly helped things, and Kara’s moment of magic was a timely reminder of what he’s capable of. Yes he needs service to be effective, but when he’s getting it, he’s a capable finisher, and he has a knack for getting into the right spots and making something out of nothing. Thorhallsson simply seems to be able to run into next week and then some, and I think we’ll see more and more of him as the year goes on.
People were rather upset about the time-wasting tactics that Tigres employed, and Oscar Pareja even made a point of addressing how little the ball was actually in play during the five minutes of second-half stoppage time. Frankly, I have no problem with the time-wasting antics employed by Tigres. If Orlando had been in position to go through, the Lions would have been doing the exact same thing, and we’d be hailing their savviness if it had worked the way it did for the Mexican giants. With that being said, it’s 100% on the referee to have better control of proceedings, prevent as much time-wasting as he can, and to make sure that the appropriate amount of stoppage time is played…which he didn’t. The time-wasting was annoying, but ultimately, if you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the official for not handling it better.
That’s not to suggest that OCSC was robbed by the referee. Outside of the stoppage time debacle, I thought he mostly did a good job, aside from maybe being a little uneven with his distribution of yellow cards to start, although things did even out more towards the end of the second half. The game was maybe called a bit tighter than we usually see in Concacaf play, but once establishing the precedent of not allowing a ton of contact, it was one that Said Martinez largely stuck to.
I want make sure I highlight the absolutely magnificent atmosphere at Exploria Stadium on Wednesday night. Aside from the top section of the south end reserved for Tigres fans, the stadium looked to be mostly sold out, and it sounded like it. The presence of several thousand Tigres fans among the 21,112 in attendance was honestly a welcome addition. In The Wall, the mindset seemed to be one of determination to not allow the away supporters to be heard, and on the occasions that the visiting fans started to grow in voice, it didn’t take long for the supporters section to up its game. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve been part of at Exploria, and the scenes of unchecked delirium that greeted Ercan Kara’s equalizer were on par with some of the goals during the run to the U.S. Open Cup trophy. If the Lions had managed to grab another one and advance, it’s entirely possible that the building wouldn’t have been standing on Thursday morning. The challenge now is continuing that sort of fervent support as the season really gets going.
Now that the CCL is in the rearview mirror, attention turns fully to the MLS season. The Lions have a fantastic opportunity to bounce back and jump-start the offense this weekend when a 0-3-0 Charlotte team comes to town. The Crown has scored only one goal and given up seven, and it’s a great chance for OCSC to find its shooting boots. Whether we see a fully first choice XI or not, I hope to see the Lions build some more cohesion on the offensive side of things, while maintaining the strong level of defensive play they’ve shown to start the season.
In short, be proud. The Lions acquitted themselves well, and on another night might well have gone through to the next round. There are a few areas that concern me, but I’m going to wait a few more weeks before truly sounding the alarm bells. If the fans can create 80-90% of that atmosphere every week, it’s going to be very difficult for teams to come