Orlando City came through in the clutch Saturday night, defeating Liga MX side Santos Laguna 3-2 at Exploria Stadium to win group South 2 of the Leagues Cup. The Lions’ reward is a trip south to take on rivals Inter Miami Wednesday night in the round of 32. It’s the first win over a Mexican side by the Lions, who lost 1-0 to this same team in 2021 and was knocked out on away goals after a pair of draws against Tigres UANL in the Concacaf Champions League earlier this season.
While Orlando City fans celebrate the win, the team will be looking forward to facing Miami on short rest Wednesday night. This weekend’s final result can disguise the fact that it wasn’t a perfect game for the Lions, showing some concerns heading into the midweek clash.
Offensively, the Lions probably should’ve taken the lead on multiple occasions during the first half hour. In the fourth minute, Mauricio Pereyra played a short set piece for Kyle Smith, who sent a cross into the box. It found Robin Jansson, who laid it off for Duncan McGuire, but the striker hit the post. Jansson was offside, but it was a missed opportunity had Jansson been able to hold his run. Ivan Angulo made a pair of nice runs into the Santos Laguna box, but was unable to find a teammate, enabling the opposition to clear.
While McGuire missed a golden opportunity to score early in the game, he equalized late in the first half for his team-leading 10th goal in all competitions. The rookie usually comes off around the hour mark and Saturday night showed why. Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja let him go 75 minutes against Santos Laguna, a few minutes longer than he probably should have. McGuire was exhausted late in his performance, struggling in his final 10 minutes on the field.
The problem is that there is little in the attack without him. He was replaced by Ramiro Enrique and Ercan Kara came into the game in the 81st minute for Angulo. But neither Enrique nor Kara did much, despite Kara being involved in the game-winning goal. They weren’t able to get on the end of balls the way McGuire had, which is why the 22-year-old has become the starter.
The Lions also struggled defensively in the first half in this game. Santos Laguna won most of the 50-50 balls in the back, beating center backs Jansson and Antonio Carlos to them. Even when the Lions defenders cleared, it was often more treacherous than Pareja would’ve liked to see.
Possibly the most concerning play came from Kyle Smith on the right side of the back line. The versatile defender was beaten regularly on his side of the field. He was lucky not to be sent off in the 27th minute when he went in studs up on Duvan Vergara. Smith was nowhere near the ball, catching the midfielder’s ankle after the Santos Laguna attacker beat him to the ball.
While the Lions can survive without their lack of finishing, and they did score three goals Saturday night, the defensive concerns are the most troublesome. If Smith starts against Miami Wednesday night, he’ll likely be up against Robert Taylor, who was a nightmare for the Atlanta United back line in a 4-0 drubbing last week. Taylor scored a brace and had an assist, consistently getting to the end line and finding Lionel Messi or Josef Martinez near the penalty spot. If Messi and Martinez can find those empty pockets of space between Jansson and Carlos, there’s little doubt that Taylor can get behind Smith and find them.
Rather than these issues being concerns independently, it’s a combination of factors that must change if Orlando City is going to beat Inter Miami. If Taylor gets the best of Smith the way he did against Atlanta, and Messi and Martinez can find those pockets, it will be hard for the Lions to keep the opposition off the scoreboard. They’ll then be chasing the game, which they did successfully Saturday night but have struggled to do much of this season.
Orlando City will be up against a full house at DRV PNK Stadium and a team that has looked very good so far in this year’s Leagues Cup. To dispatch the opposition, the Lions will need a better start to the game than they had at home Saturday night. The first 45 minutes could be the difference in the game and the Lions chance at another regional championship appearance.