COLUMBUS, OH — An early defensive mistake led Orlando City SC to its first 2017 MLS defeat, as the Lions lost 2-0 to Eastern Conference leaders Columbus Crew SC this at Mapfre Stadium. Justin Meram scored a brace to give the home side the victory.
After its best-ever MLS start, Orlando City (2-1-0, 6 points) was one of the two Eastern undefeated teams — along Toronto FC — while Crew SC (3-1-1, 10 points) leads the conference after three straight wins. The Lions remain winless in three trips to Columbus (0-2-1).
The Lions dominated possession (50.3%), passing accuracy (84% to 81%) and shots (14-6, 4-3 on target), but were not able to match Crew’s efficiency.
“I’m obviously disappointed that we suffered our first loss in our first away game, but we had a lot of positives from my point of view,” commented Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis after the match. “We created the right amount of chances but lacked a little bit of sharpness on the final third. Some of the choices we made were a little odd. We had players shooting from distance where they had a very little chance to score and occasionally we had guys passing when they should be shooting. But for me that stuff comes with games and minutes together.”
Despite having newcomer Scott Sutter available for the first time since his arrival, Kreis stuck to the starting XI he used against the Philadelphia Union and kept Will Johnson at the right back position.
Orlando City started the game putting some pressure on Columbus’ defenders when in possession, forcing the home team to give up on its usual passing style and play several long balls. The defenders were also high on the field, which led to a couple of early offside calls from the Crew offense.
However, at the 13th minute, the offside trap failed and Artur found Meram wide open on the left side. The midfielder entered the box and finished from a tight angle to find the back of Joe Bendik’s net on the Crew’s first shot.
“They got behind us a couple of times,” Kreis said. “We were stepping a little bit late and, from my point of view, if you are going to be late, you can’t step. There was a little bit of a tactical mistake there with our outside backs on a couple of occasions. However, I think that if we break it down, the number of times they actually played behind us and they were on side was relatively small.”
Orlando’s first attempt happened at the 20th minute, after Jonathan Spector intercepted the ball in the center of the field and quickly connected with Carlos Rivas, who shot from distance right at Zack Steffen.
The Lions insisted on creating from the left side, and Giles Barnes didn’t find himself in a good position to finish, shooting wide at the 28th minute. A few moments later, the Lions created again, now with Donny Toia taking advantage of a second ball. The fullback’s shot, though, was right in the center of the goal and that helped Steffen to make another easy save.
In the last few minutes of the first half, Jose Aja sustained what appeared to be a hamstring injury, and was replaced by Tommy Redding, who played in his first MLS game of 2017 after being part of the U.S. U-20 National Team. The home team controlled possession until the halftime break and insisted on feeding the ball to Harrison Afful and Ethan Finlay on the right side, while Orlando tried to create from counter attacks but was not able to create anything dangerous.
The second half started in a promising way for the Lions as Cyle Larin, who was extremely shy in his first 45 minutes, crossed from the left to find Johnson open at the opposite side, but the Canadian’s shot hit the outside netting at the 52nd minute.
Orlando tried to push numbers forward and create from the wings, but most of the crosses were promptly blocked by the Crew defenders. At the 70th minute, Jason Kreis tried his last move to change the game, bringing Sutter in to replace Matias Perez Garcia and pushing Johnson into the midfield.
The offensive strategy left plenty of space in the back and Crew SC took advantage of it in the 76th minute, when Federico Higuaín assisted Meram, who cut inside of Sutter and shot underneath Bendik’s body to score again.
The second goal apparently fueled the Lions, as the team dominated the finals minutes of the match. An angled free kick shot from Rivas at the 87th minute and a high header of Jonathan Spector at the 90th minute, and a 94th-minute drive by Johnson were the team’s best opportunities before the final whistle.
“It was about the mistakes we made,” Johnson said. “The margin is small and when you come on the road in this league you don’t have a whole margin for errors. If you are not perfect or close to it, you are going to lose more points than you are going to win games. In between the boxes the effort was pretty good, but they made two plays on the box where they scored two goals and we didn’t make the right plays on either box, offensively or defensively.”
Next week, Orlando City returns home for its fourth match of the season against the New York Red Bulls, on Saturday, April 9.