If it wasn’t the new stadium, new uniforms, or handful of new faces in the lineup, Sunday’s 1-0 win over New York City FC proved that 2017 is a new year with a new attitude coming from the Orlando City locker room.
Cyle Larin’s early goal 15 minutes into the match — which came moments after Brazilian captain Kaká was forced off the field with a hamstring injury — was the difference maker for the Lions, who fought tooth and nail to preserve the win in their debut match at Orlando City Stadium.
Lions Head Coach Jason Kreis said himself that last year’s squad, unlike his on Sunday, would have found a way to drop two — if not all three — points.
NYCFC dominated possession (68% to 32%), shots (14-7), shots on target (7-1), passing (84% to 66%), crosses (30-5), and corners (9-1). The Lions got off just one shot in the second half.
“I do think that in times past and even with the group we had last year I feel this game would’ve ended up differently,” Kreis said after the match. “I feel the team spirit would have buckled and there would’ve been a mistake that would’ve cost us and [Sunday] the guys continued to fight, continued to stay together even though there were some mistakes happening. A lot of mistakes happening, but people had positive reactions to those mistakes and we made plays.”
No team in the league let in more goals than Orlando City did last season, and Sunday’s defensive effort — led by new addition Jonathan Spector and José Aja — might be one of the better performances Orlando fans have seen in over a year. As a collective group, the team looked more unified and organized, something NYCFC Head Coach Patrick Vieira even noticed, as much as he didn’t like to talk about the other team’s performance.
“I think they worked really hard for each other,” Vieira said. “There was really togetherness in the team. I think you can look at the way they fight and work hard at every single thing. I think when you look at the goalkeeper who was the Man of the Match, that shows how they play as a team.”
The Lions found themselves fighting nearly from the start when Kaká left the match after just 11 minutes with a Grade 1-2 left hamstring injury. Giles Barnes, who had joined the club just a week earlier, jumped up off the bench and checked into the game. Minutes later, he assisted Larin on the game’s only goal.
After the game, Barnes talked about the team’s trip to the stadium, in which the players rode to the game together from downtown on a chartered bus.
“Great camaraderie,” Barnes said. “Everyone was excited to get here. Seeing the boys together, going into the stadium, seeing all of the fans outside, seeing all of you guys ready to greet us. Walking in together as a team, how we should be, I think that’s our ethos.
“We are going to be a team throughout the whole year, and I think that was a significant attempt. We went out there and showed what we are capable of.”
With their new pieces already making an impact, the Lions are hoping that team spirit will continue to carry them through the rest of the season and, hopefully, to the club’s first playoff berth in MLS.
Will Johnson, Right Back?
Kreis created a bit of pregame buzz when the lineup was released and featured Will Johnson, a central midfielder by trade, playing right back in his Orlando City debut.
The Lions have been bitten by the injury bug plenty already, including at the right back spot, where Rafael Ramos and Kevin Alston both suffered hamstring injuries in the preseason. Donny Toia had gotten the start in the team’s final preseason game on Feb. 25. Instead, Toia started at his natural spot on the left side, with Johnson sliding out of the midfield and onto the back line, where he put in one of the stronger performances of the night.
“I think massive defensive performance. He was at the right spot at the right time at many occasions in our penalty box and really appreciate his commitment level and his leadership and his fight,” Kreis said, even noting that the entire team put in a “Will Johnson-like” performance.
“I think that’s what it’s going to take to get points in this league. Really pleased with him.”
NYCFC clearly made a point of trying to break down the out-of-place right back, using most of its energy in the second half attacking down that side, but with no luck.
“I think you just need to give the credit to Johnson, who managed as a right back in order to do the work,” Vieira mentioned when talking about Rodney Wallace’s struggles on the night.
Barnes Steps In For Kaká
It’s almost tough to say, but there’s probably a good chance that Giles Barnes didn’t take his place on the bench before the game Sunday expecting to be entering the game less than 15 minutes into the first half — and replacing someone on the field as important as Kaká, at that.
Nevertheless, Barnes took the challenge and did a fine enough job filling the captain’s shoes for nearly 80 minutes against NYCFC.
Barnes didn’t attempt any shots, but created two chances — including his assist on Larin’s goal — and made a massive contribution on the defensive end, collecting a game-high five tackles.
According to Opta, he made some history by doing what he did.
“He did well,” Kreis said of Barnes. “I think that he’s still learning. I think that’s exactly what’s expected of him in that midfield role. I think naturally he’s a little bit more of a second striker so to put him in a wide position there’s a real defensive role. I’ll continue to work with him on that but obviously to come into a game like that the way he did, almost zero warm-up, he had to just throw himself in there, it was a difficult one to join.”
Barnes, who the Lions acquired on Feb. 25 in a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps that included Brek Shea as the departing player, may be called upon more now in the coming weeks with Kaká slated to miss about six weeks.
Jonathan Spector, who also made his team debut on Sunday, said that having players like Barnes on the bench to call upon is a strength for the team, and he’s confident in Barnes’ ability to fill Kaká’s shoes moving forward.
“[Kaká]’s a great player and he’s a loss certainly but Giles came in and did extremely well,” Spector said. “That’s one of the great things about this team, we have so much strength and depth. So, I mean when someone like Kaká goes down and someone like Giles Barnes to come in, in a league like this, I think we are in a really good position.”