James O’Connor spent most of the past week making sure that Orlando City’s performance against the Montreal Impact, a 3-1 loss at home, was nothing more than an outlier, a game that doesn’t truly represent this version of the Lions, who they are and what they want to accomplish.
The Lions backed up his statements on Saturday night with a 1-0 win on the road over the New York Red Bulls, the first win for the club in 2019 in a game that was neither pretty or exciting to watch.
Orlando City played ugly soccer all night, frustrated the Red Bulls, and found themselves on the end of a counter-attack goal to find all three points, giving them five points through their first four games of the season. If you’re still looking for signs of improvement under O’Connor this season, just look at the fact that the team only took nine points from 17 games last season under their new boss.
While we’re still trying to figure out just how good this team is, I feel confident in saying they’re not the team that showed up against Montreal, and that’s not to say they’re the team that just went on the road and handed the Red Bulls their first home loss since last July, but they’re probably somewhere in between — and better than most people are willing to give them credit for.
The Starting XI
Here are the boys lining up for City tonight in New Jersey.
Coverage begins at 7:00 on my65 and YouTube TV with kickoff at 7:30. #RBNYvORL pic.twitter.com/cnw4r79n2T
— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) March 23, 2019
After some troubles against Montreal last weekend, O’Connor took Orlando back to the 5-3-2 against the Red Bulls, putting the squad in a better shape to handle the home side defensively, letting the wingbacks — Ruan and Joao Moutinho in this game — make the night tough on the outside and not stretch the field, but also be able to clog the midfield with numbers, limit space for the Red Bulls to work inside, and provide another body of cover if Orlando committed any costly turnovers in dangerous areas.
Orlando came into the match looking to find success on the counter-attack — which they did — and keep the Red Bulls from gaining any momentum or letting the game flow — which again, they did. It was perfect game planning from O’Connor, who despite the hiccup last week has done an excellent job of preparing his team for the opponents they’re going to play on a weekly basis, showing a clear and obvious game plan each week that the Lions, on top of that, have been able to execute.
That, to me, has been my biggest takeaway from the season so far. Orlando City isn’t the most talented team, and they may not play the prettiest soccer in the league, but they come in with a plan and they’ve been very good at following through on it.
By the Numbers
This was one of those games where the stats tell you pretty well what happened, but they certainly don’t tell the whole story.
The Lions were out-possessed (55-45), only had two shots on target, and only completed a dreadful 57 percent of their 357 passes on the night. Now that sounds bad on the surface when you look below that to see how the Lions played throughout the night it makes more sense.
Orlando made 43 clearances, meaning they were heaving away a lot of balls, especially in the final 20 minutes after taking the lead, as you can see here:
Keeping the Red Bulls frustrated
Red Bulls players after the match were notably frustrated with the way things shook out, and for good reasons. The Lions beat them at their own game — and on their home field no less. New York succeeds by playing high-energy, high-pressing soccer centered around creating chances on turnovers and winning a lot of second-ball opportunities, and at the end of the day, it was Orlando City that walked away winners by doing what they do so well.
Orlando won a lot of second-ball chances, played with a ton of high energy, and played the Red Bulls into a lot of turnovers high into the Lions’ half of the field.
The Lions knew exactly what New York would be looking to do, so they went out and did it better, creating a blueprint for teams around the league on how to handle the defending Supporters’ Shield champs.
Taking Nani and Dwyer out of the game
The Red Bulls, for all of the efforts, did one thing noticeably well: whenever Nani or Dom Dwyer had the ball, they were instantly swarmed with defenders, making it much harder for either player to dribble and find open space.
The Lions weren’t bad offensively, but they did lack that bite you need in the final third to finish off chances, and you should give the Red Bulls credit for limiting one of the best chance-creators in the league and one of the best pure finishers.
MSG (the Red Bulls TV broadcaster) put together this clip during the game of how Nani was being defended all night:
Not every team in the league has the athleticism to do that, but the better teams do, and the Red Bulls certainly showed it.
Some other things to note
Sacha Kljestan‘s goal on first glance looks like a botched cross that just happened to fall into the right spot to be slipped home, but there are a few things that go into it that make it a little more complicated.
Sure, Moutinho was likely looking to one-time that ball low with pace ahead of Dwyer for an easy tap-in effort, but instead, it went behind him and opened up a different opportunity. I just mentioned above how Dwyer and Nani had been double-teamed throughout the night, and in this play, it’s no different. Dwyer is able to pull both center backs in towards goal, leaving a ton of open space near the top of the box.
Ruan and Kljestan do a good job of tracking and keeping pace with the play, enough so that Kljestan is able to step in and claim that loose ball, giving Orlando the only goal of the night.
Even though he played about 20 minutes against the Montreal Impact, this was our first real chance to see Santiago Patino and what he can bring to the field for Orlando City.
First impression: he’s a big, strong kid, who in time is going to be able to size up defenders and hustle its way through the box. I’m not saying he’s on the same level as Cyle Larin, but he has the potential to be a Larin-esque target striker if he can just work on his touch.
Here he is in the 25th minute muscling right past Kyle Duncan to secure a breakaway opportunity, only to have a poor touch foil his plans:
Lamine Sane somehow only escaped with a yellow from this clearances attempt, but you have to think there’s a chance that the MLS Disciplinary Committee will have something more to add to it.
Sané’s leg goes high, and while there’s clearly no intent to hurt Omir Fernandez, he’s putting danger in the way of the opponent and that kind of play is something MLS usually takes very seriously. I’m just more surprised it wasn’t seen right away by VAR.
Kljestan called Red Bull Arena home for three seasons before being traded to Orlando, and on Saturday night he made it his home again by putting in one of the best 90-minute shifts with Orlando.
73 touches, one key pass, one goal, three tackles, two clearances, and completed 67 percent of his 49 passes. His work rate was as high as anyone on the field, and he covered a ton of ground.
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