If there was one game this season in which Orlando City was surely not supposed to win, it was Saturday’s away trip to Atlanta United.
Sure, Atlanta United has struggled mightily this season, having lost Josef Martinez to a torn ACL after the first game of the year, going winless in three matches without scoring a goal at MLS is Back, and then firing Frank de Boer shortly after, but at the end of the day, it’s Atlanta United, and the one thing they don’t do it lose to Orlando City.
On top of that, Oscar Pareja used this match as a rest day for many of his key starters, leaving Nani and Ruan on the bench, and Mauricio Pereyra and Tesho Akindele off the game day roster entirely.
But that’s the funny thing about soccer. Sometimes, whatever things look like on paper have nothing to do with the actual game that plays out in front off us, and that’s just what happened in Georgia on Saturday afternoon.
Atlanta United dominated possession early, but it was Orlando City that scored twice in the first half, first in the 13th minute on a Junior Urso header off a corner kick, and then again in the 35th when Chris Mueller deposited his league-leading 6th goal of the season as the Lions went on to defeat Atlanta United for the first time ever in the four seasons of this “rivalry” matchup by a scoreline of 3-1.
It was a performance as impressive as the scoreline, as Orlando City improved to 4-2-2 (4-1-1 post-shutdown) on the season after a pair of 3-1 victories in a four-day span this week, thanks in large part to Daryl Dike, who once again made an impact in the starting lineup for Pareja’s side.
Orlando City’s run to the MLS is Back Tournament final brought us the debut of Dike, the Lions’ towering 6-foot-2, 225 pound target man that was selected 6th overall in the SuperDraft this past January. Dike scored his first career goal against Inter Miami last week and added two more to his tally on Wednesday night against Nashville SC.
Though he didn’t find the net in Atlanta on Saturday, Dike’s presence on the field was still known and helped make an impact for Orlando City.
On Orlando City’s opening goal of the match in the 13th minute, it’s a corner kick that Chris Mueller whips into the penalty area. As Junior Urso makes his run from the outside of the area in the middle of the box, it’s Dike dragging two Atlanta defenders up and out of the way to clear the space for Urso to connect an unchallenged header that rockets through Brad Guzan‘s paws and into the net.
Teams are going to want to mark a big man in the box like that because on corner kicks he’s a threat to power his way to the ball. In this case, as he isolates himself from the rest of the scrum, it forces Atlanta to stick another man on him to prevent winning any headers that come it way. While Atlanta was successful in marking him, it was also a well-executed diversion on his part to open the space for Urso.
Later in the half on Orlando’s second goal, it’s Dike again as the magnet, drawing in both of Atlanta’s central defenders, creating that large seam on the right for Benji Michel to sneak through and create a 2v1 break on goal against Guzan to make it a 2-0 game. Not to mention, the quick awareness of Dike to receive the ball and immediately notice Michel to set up the assist.
Orlando City’s system works so well because it involves everybody in the attacking third, meaning that they don’t necessarily need that Josef Martinez-type, scoring all of the goals striker to succeed — although it would certainly take the Lions to the next level — rather they’re able to plug in guys like Dike and Tesho Akindele, who are quick to make decisions, use their size to pull defenders and create space with runs, and then find open teammates around them to help capitalize on opportunities.
The assumption on Dike is that because he’s a fresh out of college, he still has some learning to do before he can truly break through at the professional level, and while that may be true to an extent because playing in college for a top program, in his case the University of Virginia, and playing professional soccer at the highest level in the country are two very different things, Dike has shown that he’s far more polished and closer to reaching great heights than most expected, myself included.
Naturally, there are areas for improvement. He runs can be a bit better. As Matt Doyle pointed out, this play in the 29th minute could very easily have turned into a goal for Dike if he put himself into the right position.
Dike tried to make the inside run and cut in front of Miles Robinson for the ball, but if he had stayed central, closer to the back post, he probably would have been there to get that Mueller cross for an effortless tap-in.
It’s small things like that, not big stuff, that make it easy to believe that Dike could finally be the man up top for Orlando City, something they’ve been desperately missing since Cyle Larin forced his way out of the club back in January 2018. Akindele has been a strong piece for Orlando over the last two seasons, but he’s just not the guy you build everything around. And then there’s Dom Dwyer, who’s out for the year after knee surgery and also hasn’t lived up to any of the expectations since arriving in Orlando in the summer of 2017. If Dwyer is still around for the Lions in 2021, it’ll again be tough to expect much from once-elite striker.
That leaves Dike as the future, the guy Orlando City is hoping blossoms into a full-fledged star. Spring is long gone, but this potential star is blossoming.
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