Each of Orlando City's previous two MLS season-opening matches have been special, but this one felt even more so. In front of a crowd of 25,527, the still-to-be-corporately-named Orlando City Stadium was broken in with a 1-0 win over New York City FC courtesy of a strike from -- who else? -- Cyle Larin.
The atmosphere was electric, and while the squad didn't look in mid-season form by any means, the Lions did enough to take three points off their expansion and Eastern Conference rivals to start the 2017 season on the right foot. Here are five of the more important observations from the night.
The Stadium is All It Was Cracked Up to Be
This was perhaps a no-brainer coming in, but the new digs provided a completely different atmosphere than the stadium formerly known as the Citrus Bowl had over the past two seasons. While Camping World Stadium had the edge in sheer size and capacity, the new Orlando City Stadium provides a truer home-field advantage, courtesy of a more intimate environment that sets up 25,500-plus supporters right on top of the pitch and uses canopy-style overhangs to reverberate sound back down directly onto the playing surface.
Despite holding fewer spectators, the match against NYCFC felt more like an authentic experience than even the most-intense matches that took place at CWS, and -- however much of a foregone conclusion it was -- the beautiful new stadium is something to be excited about. If you were unable to attend, make sure you make it out to a Lions home match as soon as you can. The sheer verticality of The Wall in all its glory is a sight to behold.
The New-Look Defense Wasn't Perfect -- But It Delivered
Center back Jonathan Spector was largely solid in his debut for Orlando City, cleaning things up nicely in the center of defense and marshaling well next to the strong José Aja in his first career appearance in purple. Donny Toia was excellent at times, and he did well against the dangerous Jack Harrison for NYC, a former No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick that tallied four goals and seven assists last season. Will Johnson, a midfielder by trade, fared well at right back in the absence of Rafa Ramos and Kevin Alston.
Orlando still allowed twice as many shots as it attempted, though, seven of which were on target and six of which came from inside the 18-yard box. Joe Bendik still had to make a number of big saves to preserve the 1-0 scoreline, most notably against Harrison and a pair against Sean Okoli in the latter stages of the match. New York could have probably done better on some of those chances, but the fact is that they didn't, and credit must be given where it's due. A Lions' defense that was the leakiest in MLS last season started 2017 off with a clean sheet against an attack that features the lethal David Villa. Job well done.
Cyle Larin is Still Cyle Larin
After totaling 31 goals in his first two MLS seasons, Larin entered 2017 fully on the radar of opposing defenses and, reportedly, on the radars of many European teams as well. It only took the Canadian 15 minutes to score the new Orlando City Stadium's first goal -- one that would turn out to be the winner -- and start his 2017 campaign off in similar goal-scoring fashion. Orlando City only controlled 31% of the possession in the contest, so Larin's opportunities weren't plentiful, but he turned one of his two shots into the game's only score with a powerful, downward header off an aerial ball from Giles Barnes to give NYC goalkeeper Sean Johnson no chance of stopping it. The instinctive back-post run that set up Barnes' pass was more evidence of the third-year forward's off-the-ball prowess. Larin exited after 74 minutes with what appeared to be cramps, but as long as he bounces back quickly, you can't be too displeased with his first outing of the '17 campaign.
Kaká is Still...Kaká
That is to say, brilliant when he's on his game, but also still 34 years old -- and on the brink of turning 35 next month. It's always a stretch to count on the consistent health of a player with as much mileage on his legs as Ricky has accrued, but there was hope coming into the year that he'd be able to stay a bit healthier than he did a season ago when he played in just 24 of 34 league matches. Those hopes were dashed almost immediately, as the Brazilian play-maker went down with a hamstring injury just 10 minutes into the match.
There were depth concerns for Orlando coming into Sunday's season-opener, and the loss of Kaká, which seems like it could be for a considerable length of time according to Head Coach Jason Kreis' post-match comments, is another big blow to the Lions' depth. New addition Giles Barnes finished the last 79 minutes of the match and brought energy and dished out the night's only assist, but it's a disheartening start for Orlando City's star man, to say the least, and a sign that this might be another year of injury troubles for the Brazilian superstar.
Encouraging News in the Midfield
While the aforementioned loss of Kaká was unfortunate, there was a bit of good news on the evening in the middle of the park: Crisitian Higuita returned for a 16-minute cameo in place of Cyle Larin. Higuita's return was encouraging considering it came only three weeks after suffering an adductor injury in training, the kind of knock one might not be expected to come back from in time for the season-opening clash when it happened so late in preseason camp.
Higuita came on and helped solidify things for the Lions as they tried to close out the match while nursing their 1-0 advantage, and he did it alongside Antonio Nocerino and Servando Carrasco, both of whom played well in their 2017 debuts. While there may be a need for answers in attack with Kaká sidelined, the central midfield appears to be in good shape with the return of No. 7.