Three games up, three games down. Orlando City remains undefeated in the MLS is Back Tournament after Monday night’s 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union — one of the compeition’s favorites.
The draw helped Orlando claim the top spot in Group A, hardly anything outsiders expected from the Lions heading into the tournament. City will spend the next couple of days watching the rest of the group-play results fly in around the league before knowing who they’ll line up against for the start of the knockout round on Saturday night.
The performance, while arguably the worst of their three so far in the Disney bubble, was far from anything that most teams would consider poor. Orlando City finished with the edge in possession (54 to 46), put more shots on target (7 to 4) and created more “big chances” (3 to 1).
While statistics fail to paint an accurate picture, most would be able to argue that the Lions were the better side, and more so deserving of all three points.
But that shouldn’t discredit the performance of Philadelphia, which under Jim Curtin has build itself into a strong pressing, possession-based side capable of making life difficult for opponents on and off the ball.
As the Union did most of the night against Orlando.
Let’s go beyond the scoreline to take a deeper look at what the Lions did pull out the draw against Philly.
“They decided from the first minute to be protagonists of the game and I think they did that. We had another experience where we were down in the score and we bounced back quickly and that just tells us that the team has personality and desire and that made us feel very confident. They played against a very good team also, [Philadelphia are] well-coached and very dynamic in the middle,” head coach Oscar Pareja said after the match.
From the beginning of the match, Orlando committed to putting numbers forward and pushing the ball towards goal at every chance.
The snap below is a shot by Junior Urso in the 9th minute. That’s five Orlando City players in the box to counter Philadelphia’s five defenders. The shot sails wide, but in reality, Urso could have settled that floating ball down to his feet if he wanted to instead, given that he’d have the opportunity in the open acre of space to shoot or play the ball off.
Either way, that’s a solid example of aggressive attitude throughout the match.
Under James O’Connor, the Lions always played pragmatic. They were modest in possession, but lacked a punch in the final third, largely because they never fully committed to pushing numbers forwards, fearful of getting caught exposed on the counter-attack.
Under Pareja, the approach is a night and day. The Lions, as they have throughout this tournament, have play from the back, similarly, but do so with more purpose in possession. They involve the midfielders, push the fullbacks up to allow the wingers to play inside, and push up towards the box so the aforementioned fullbacks, or even Nani in some cases, can whip in cross with pace and accuracy.
We saw that sequence play out when Chris Mueller scored his first goal of the tournament against Inter Miami in the opening match. Nani racing down the wing, Tesho Akindele and Mueller running forward into the box, and Mueller, the far-side runner was able to connect with the pass and punch it home.
Against Philadelphia, it was Nani again, this time finding Mauricio Pereyra, one of three runners into the box, connecting with the cross and finding the equalizing goal for Orlando.
In all, that’s five separate players in the box ready to bounce should the ball navigate towards their direction. Over-loading the box created confusion for the Union backline, leading to broken marks and opportunities aplenty for the Lions, which for a team as organized as Philadelphia tends to be, is an impressive feat of tactical out-classing by Pareja.
Even deep into the match, as stoppage time approached, the Lions kept their foot on the gas and pressure home until the final whislte.
One more instance here, in the 89th minute, Ruan‘s cross in wasn’t strong enough to find the middle of the six players crowding Philadelphia’s penalty area.
One of the most glaring holes on this Orlando City roster, undoubtably, the lack of elite scoring from the No. 9 position, meaning the club will need to rely on the collective efforts of the group to find goals and finish chances this season.
Tactics like this give way to opportunities finding more boots, and hopefully, as Pareja is betting, leading to more goals.
Some other things of note
Nani delivered an underwhelming performance, one that can probably be chalked up to playing almost every minute of the group stage for the Lions.
He completed just 24 of his 37 passing attempts (65 percent, the lowest of all field players from either team), whiffing on opportunities to play in runners and create chances in the final third. Many of those passes lacked pace and sharpness, suggesting that maybe his legs were feeling a but of strain after playing 90+ minutes in three consecutive games after a three months layoff.
Pareja ran with the same lineup for each of the three group games, making just one change in the final contest, with Dom Dwyer forced out of the lineup pre-game for precautionary reasons (muscle tightness). Teams are given the opportunity to make five subs in a game, but Pareja has also opted to make just four in the last two games.
Fitness was a main issue for clubs heading into this tournament, and while Orlando is certainly exception, they’ve proven to be one of the most fit-looking sides in the tournament. Perhaps playing all three of their games in the 8 p.m. time slot, the most favorable of the three slots, has helped.
Regardless, in a World Cup-style tournament, fit, well-rested teams tend to be the ones that prevail. While I’m not counting out Orlando making a run to the final based solely on a lack of rotation in the group stage, it does add an extra challenge towards staying healthy and competitive throughout the competition, as we’ve already seen the pitfalls of what having tired legs can bring to teams in Orlando.
While strong defensively throughout the night, the Lions were caught of guard in a rare moment of unorganized defense.
Without the cover to appropriately handle to sudden switch by Brenden Aaronson and Alejandro Bedoya, Joao Moutinho commits to playing Bedoya instead of keeping a mark on the wide-open Ilsinho, who receives the ball and slips a powerful far-post shot past Pedro Gallese.
There’s no ideal scenario there, because even if Moutinho stays wide and Jansson steps up to Bedoya, that would be leaving an open lane to slip in a pass for Kacper Prazbylko. Same thing if Jansson crashes on Ilsinho.
This was probably Pereyra’s best game of the tournament so far. 71 touches, 47 of 54 complete passes, three chances created, and one goal.
Where Pereyra was most-impressive to me was his play with the ball. Philadelphia pressed hard and often, making simple ball movement through the neutral third of the field difficult all night.
When Pereyra was able to make an attempt at dribbling, he was quickly closed on and pressured, taking a few early beatings with the ball, but his composure and ability to fight off challenges and hold on to possession or get the pass off is a valuable trait in keep possession for his side.
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