The Lions absolutely crushed Brazilian Serie B side Esporte Clube Bahia last night at the Citrus Bowl, 6-1. After falling behind in the first minute, Orlando took control of the match and pulled level by halftime, despite squandering a number of good scoring chances.
After the break, despite looking a bit discombobulated for a spell, the Lions started scoring. And scoring. And scoring.
It was a feel-good win to send the team into next weekend's season opener against Real Salt Lake. The starters went the full 90 minutes, with the exception of Cristian Higuita (international duty) and Kevin Molino, who was subbed out after an hour. Molino played 45 minutes on Wednesday and did seem to tire from time to time. But his bursts of energetic play were a sight to behold.
Here are my five takeaways from last night's match.
Set Piece Work is Paying Off
Sure, it's easy to point to Seb Hines' four goals off set pieces and see an improvement after a full preseason of Adrian Heath emphasizing these kinds of plays. But it went beyond three goals off corner kicks and one from a free kick. Orlando City had a few corner kick opportunities before Hines put the Lions on the board. Although they didn't score, the service was mostly good and the low, hard crosses put a lot of pressure on Bahia.
Defensively, the wall did its job against Bahia on free kicks and the team was sharp on most of the Brazilian side's corners, although David Mateos did swing and miss at one cross that could easily have found a Bahia player for a tap-in during the second half.
By adding a few set piece goals and cutting down on set piece goals conceded, Orlando City could churn out a few more points in 2016 by turning losses into draws or draws into wins. It could be the difference between making the playoffs in Year 2, or not.
Aurelien Collin on the Bubble?
It seems clear from Heath's team selections this preseason that Hines and Mateos have become the first-team pairing. Collin has appeared in a couple of preseason friendlies with the reserves and has not started the last few first-team matches.
It's not as if Collin has played poorly this preseason. In fact, he's played quite well. But the Hines-Mateos pairing has also done well and perhaps they are better suited for what Heath wants. They did let Ze Roberto roast them in the first minute for Bahia's lone goal, but aside from that they made few mistakes. Not many would suggest removing Hines after a four-goal appearance, but they also ran a set piece involving Mateos, although the Spaniard's cross was a bit overcooked.
If Hines and Mateos can get the job done and if Devron Garcia provides quality depth, Collin's salary makes him hard to hang onto in a backup role.
#MolinoMania Is a Thing
Few players were as electrifying last night as Kevin Molino. He didn't score or record an assist but his quick interplay with Kaká, Cyle Larin, Pedro Ribeiro, and others was jaw dropping at times. Molino could (and should) have had several assists in the first half.
"He has been playing and practicing well. It's been great to have him on the field," Heath said about Molino after the game. "He hasn't had any problems with his [ACL] injury and has been working hard. He moved well back into his role on the field. He had great plays with Kaká and other players. His play in the first half was great."
It was said last year that it's only a matter of time before Molino establishes himself as an offensive threat and that seems to be getting closer and closer. But, moreover, he will help others get on the score sheet this season.
Ribeiro Has a New Home
Pedro looks like a new man in central midfield. The Lions began with a 4-3-2-1, with Ribeiro left of Servando Carrasco and Darwin Ceren. Not only does Ribeiro look more comfortable than he did at any point last season as a striker or attacking midfielder, but he also looks quicker and more decisive. He plays faster when not playing with his back to goal as a lone striker. Ribeiro's interchange play with the rest of his midfield partners last night was outstanding.
"I thought he was the best player on the field tonight," Heath said about Ribeiro at his postgame presser. "He was fantastic. For him to get a goal was great."
Ribeiro's goal was a left-footed blast that gave the keeper no chance, and in the first half he set up Larin for what should have been an easy goal, but the Canadian squibbed it well over the bar. Don't be surprised if Pedro starts on opening day.
Midfield Now a Strength
The thinnest part of the team in 2015 could be the team's greatest strength in 2016. With Ribeiro emerging as a central midfielder, joining Nocerino, Ceren, Higuita and Carrasco, defensive midfield is set for now. And guys like Harrison Heath are waiting in the wings for their opportunity to step up to the first team.
On the attacking side, Molino simply gives the team a dimension that was missing last year. Kaká had several moments of magic last night, testing the keeper, dancing around multiple defenders and creating space for teammates. He even looked a step quicker. Adrian Winter and Carlos Rivas could become super subs off the bench.
The best part of last night's game was watching midfielders bob and weave into different places on the pitch, changing the team's shape at times and confusing the Bahia defense.
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That's what I took away from last night's match. What stuck out to you?