Orlando City went 13 games into their inaugural season before defeating the Chicago Fire, 3-2, on Saturday night for win No. 1 over an Eastern Conference opponent, extending the club's current unbeaten streak to four matches, and propelling them to fourth place in the East.
They usually say not to worry about how the team won the game, but that they did in the first place. But today, it's all about how Orlando City won the game.
The Starting Lineup
Adrian Heath deployed his traditional 4-2-3-1 formation against the Fire, making a few key changes to the personnel. Lewis Neal started on the left wing in place of Carlos Rivas, whose struggles this season forced Heath to go with a slower, less dynamic player in his spot. Even though this decision was hinted by Heath earlier in the week, with Eric Avila already playing on the right it left Orlando City with more precision and less actual attacking skill on the wings, making things harder for them on the road in Chicago.
Neal teamed up on the left flank with Luke Boden, who actually found himself doing most of the attacking work on that side. Elsewhere, striker Cyle Larin was benched in favor of the hot goal-scoring hand in Pedro Ribeiro, while Aurelien Collin made his return to the lineup in favor of Seb Hines, who sat this one out.
Playing Outside and Ignoring the Middle
It was pretty clear from the start that Orlando City's game plan was to play down the wings and create chances in the air from the outside. With Brek Shea away for international duty and Rivas on the bench, the Lions didn't have an attacking advantage running on the wings, but still ran with it. Boden, the left back, spent far more time overlapping Neal and playing as the left winger than Neal, who seemed rarely involved in the attack and stayed back to defend more often than not.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Rafael Ramos and Eric Avila were surprisingly quiet, whereas you would expect most of the team's attacks to be led by those two. Ramos can usually be found bombing down the right, but instead he stayed back and defended for most of the game. This was actually a smart tactical call by Heath, with Chicago favoring that left side, just as Orlando City did, for much of the first half, with Kennedy Igboananike running wild.
Below you can see the flow of play through the first half:
Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita were strong and played well in the middle of the field, but with the Lions running mostly outside, it seemed as if Kaká almost wasn't there at times, and wasn't as involved as we've seen in the past, when he'd be at the center of every attack. Though give Chicago credit, with Neal and Avila on the wings, that let them put more of their focus on Kaká in the middle, which affected his ability to get open and find space to work.
As the game wore on, things evened out and the Lions began to work through the middle a little more often, especially after Larin came into the match and gave them a spark of life up top.
And here's a shot of how the second half played out, with much more emphasis on moving through the middle:
Unlike in the first half, they were much more direct in the final 45 minutes going for goal, while to start the match the game plan involved sitting back, holding possession and waiting for opportunities to get forward.
Lots of Possession, Few Chances
Adrian Heath prides his teams on having a lot of possession, and as has been the case all season, the Lions dominated the ball over Chicago (63% to 37%). Orlando City, which leads the league in passing percentage, were also crazy good moving the ball in this one, completing just a touch under 600 passes (597, 85 percent).
While you would expect holding onto the ball would be a good thing and lead to plenty of goals -- or at least goal scoring chances -- that wasn't exactly the case for Orlando City on Saturday.
The Lions spent much of the first half playing behind the center line with their back line and defensive midfielders. The first 45 minutes were scattered with plenty of slow, short passes. Like I said above, having Avila and Neal as two of your three attacking midfielders does not promise danger in the midfield.
Orlando was out-shot 12-3 in the first half, while holding almost 57 percent possession. One of their big problems continued to be a lack of finishing in the final third, which showed up on the passing charts, with just 37 percent of their passes completed in the final third.
The second half yielded more attacking, a higher completion percentage of their passes in the final third, and overall life on the ball with Rivas and Larin providing late sparks and energy that hadn't been seen from Neal and all that often by Ribeiro.
What Needs to Change
Orlando City returns home next weekend to take on D.C. United for the third and final time this season. Hopefully, with seven days of rest and being back in the friendly confines of the Citrus Bowl, the Lions will come out much more comfortable and a little sharper on the attack.
The U.S. Men's National Team plays Germany on Tuesday, which means Shea should be back with the squad and available for Sunday's match, giving them that dangerous man on the left they've been looking for. Shea looked good for the USMNT at left back against the Netherlands on Friday, but he and Boden on the left side should give DC a handful to defend.