I could get used to this kind of thing. Orlando City has two wins from two matches and you can see a new attitude of players playing for each other, helping one another, and a bit of a swagger on the offensive end. We’ve seen backheel flicks, double spins, and all manner of moves previously not put on display by the Lions.
It’s a very encouraging start, and if it continues, it’s going to be a fun season.
Last night, Orlando City (2-0-0, 6 points) won its second straight against Philadelphia (0-1-2, 2 points), in the type of game that would have been a draw in years past. The drive by Ilsinho that clanked off the left post would have bounced into the net the last two years, sucking the life out of the stadium and stealing two points from Orlando for the visitors, and may have been the two points that kept the Lions out of the postseason. But that never happened, and instead we go into the international break on a bit of a high.
Before we turn our attention to the USMNT and the Pride’s preseason, let’s look back at what stood out from last night’s match.
No Knockin’ Nocerino
Nobody took more abuse early in their Orlando City tenure than Italian midfielder Antonio Nocerino. Boy has Noce turned things around. The 31-year-old from Naples has a renewed spring in his step and a more confident all-around game. It started after Jason Kreis took over as head coach in Orlando and has progressed to the point where the Italian is earning his hefty salary. Last night, Nocerino added a new wrinkle to his game – getting forward into the box to add to the attack.
“I thought he was spectacular,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the match. “He in particular was breaking up a lot of plays and was in and around a lot of important possessions for us, found the right pass many, many times, and did get forward a little bit more than he has typically, and we’re going to need that.”
Antonio was on his game all night, stepping into passing lanes to nick the ball, directing his teammates where to go, sending ridiculous one-time passes up the field where they hit teammates perfectly in stride, and being a veteran leader. It was a knockout performance from someone fans can’t knock much anymore.
Larin on Fire
I’ll admit it was a little worrying to see Cyle Larin score only one goal in the last nine games of 2016, and only four in the 14 matches after Kreis became Orlando City’s coach. Could it be that Kid Fantastic wasn’t cut out for the Kreis system? It turns out, LOL, no.
“I think first and foremost it’s about the work rate and the commitment that Cyle has put in to take himself through a new fitness level, and he’s able to play a little bit different way than he did last year,” Kreis said. “I enjoy seeing people who work hard get some success and it’s really pleasing to see Cyle get a couple goals.
“Tonight [Larin] showed an ability to make runs into the corners. He showed an ability to turn on the ball and go at defenders 1-v-1, and also he played some very nice passes in combination with other players around him, so that’s what we want. We want him to become a more versatile striker — not just a box striker.”
Larin has stuffed the net three times in two matches and nearly netted a hat trick last night in a tour de force performance up top for Orlando. The Canadian international is passing at a much higher rate this season (83.3% last night, with two chances created), making more intelligent runs in a wider variety of directions, and partnering at the top of Orlando’s 4-4-2 in perfect balance with Colombian striker Carlos Rivas. It may be too early to start talking about the Golden Boot or the MVP race, but if this continues, both of those things will be in play and we’ll have to start worrying about European clubs swooping in to take Cyle away.
Jose Aja and C.J. Sapong Waged an Epic Battle
It’s difficult to know how much of it could be seen on television, but Orlando City center back Jose Aja and Union striker C.J. Sapong embarked on one of the most physical 90-minute on-field wars I’ve ever seen. The Uruguayan defender and Philadelphia’s forward were banging and grabbing nearly the entire match, trying to win the positional battle. Aja tossed Sapong to the ground a couple of times but also managed to muscle him quite legally much of the night. Sapong may have scored a goal — when he was able to go up and over Will Johnson instead of fighting for it against Aja — but he won’t soon forget how tough his night in Orlando was.
This Carlos Rivas is DP-Worthy
For two seasons, we’ve seen an inconsistent young man from Colombia bewilder us with stray shots, tantalize us with his speed, and generally fail to make a meaningful impact on Orlando City games. If he can continue to turn in performances like last night, those days would appear to be over. Carlos Rivas drove the Union insane last night with his speed, finesse, surprising amount of defensive tenacity, and inch-perfect passes.
If Larin earned most people’s Man of the Match nods for his two goals, Rivas can’t have been far behind. His slick backheel on to Matias Perez Garcia’s onrushing foot helped set up the second goal, even as his fizzing cross permitted nothing other than the simplest of touches from Larin to help it across the line for Orlando’s first of the evening. He set up two other excellent opportunities that went wanting, but last night’s performance was reminiscent of – and possibly better than – Rivas’ masterful performance at Montreal late last season. This Carlos Rivas is an MLS DP, full stop.
After the match, Kreis talked about Rivas’s “willingness to work extremely hard” in the off-season and “give us something different with his running behind defenders.”
“[Rivas] deserves a couple [goals] as well,” Kreis said. “I wouldn’t want to say anything about the forwards without saying how important Carlos Rivas was to the performance tonight as well.”
He’s very succinct, too. When asked how his ailing hamstring felt after the game, he said, “muy bueno.”
Orlando City Stadium is legit. It’s difficult to explain how moving into a new building has changed the feel of the team, but it just has. The press box was rumbling under my feet and I heard every chant and every song as the purple-clad masses willed their team on to another victory. This year’s Lions rarely seem nervy. This Orlando City team doesn’t appear to rattle. One expects good results rather than bad ones, even if a play breaks down the wrong way and you’re suddenly looking down the pitch to see an enemy striker bearing down on Joe Bendik.
“Another night where I’m really, really pleased with the effort and commitment, the work rate, the togetherness, the passion of the players. I think a lot of that is spurred on by our fantastic home fans,” Kreis said. “So, a really pleasing night for, I think, everybody involved.”
Just by moving into a more intimate venue a few blocks away from Camping World Stadium, the 2017 version of Orlando City seems much more likely to get positive results at home. The fans and the team are turning Orlando City Stadium into the kind of fortress the old Citrus Bowl never was. You now expect points rather than hope for them.
Those are the things I noticed in last night’s 2-1 win. What stood out to you? Let us know in the comments section below.