We’re a few days removed from a gut punch of a loss to Atlanta United on Hector Villalba’s stunning late strike that ruined a game in which the Lions did everything they set out to do except score goals — and you can blame Brad Guzan, in part, for that. The opportunity to avenge that loss is only five days away. Before we get to what will hopefully be a payback game, let’s take a look back through the notebook from the first meeting between the two southeastern-most teams in Major League Soccer.
With the two teams never having seen each other before, Friday’s match turned out to be a fairly entertaining game. The Gold Cup break was evident on two levels: players seemed to have more jump in their legs, yet some of the passing combinations seemed to be just a tick out of sync. It was a rare mixture of high energy and rust.
Orlando City did largely what it wanted to do. The Lions limited a prolific Atlanta offense to just eight shots and forced a quick-attacking team to be more patient and try to build play from deeper on the pitch. On the other end, the club got four chances created from Kaká on the night, created excellent opportunities on set pieces, and had two golden chances by setting Carlos Rivas and Will Johnson loose into the box. While the final product never materialized, it would be wrong to say the performance on Friday wasn’t an improvement on how the team was playing before the break.
The Lions get a quick shot at revenge at Atlanta this Saturday. Is it good to have an opportunity for payback right away?
“Yeah I suppose so because I think our locker room feels like we were a little bit hard done, meaning our performance warranted better than what we got,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after Friday’s game. “There’s one way to rectify that situation is to go [to Atlanta] and get those three points back.”
“I think it’s good,” said Kaká. “We know them now and we have the whole week to prepare for the game away. We have never played there but I can see it as a very good atmosphere, the supporters with full stadium every game. It will be very good to be there and face them in their house.”
Speaking of Kaká…
After an injury just minutes into the 2017 opener delayed his impact to Orlando City this season, Kaká exploded back into the lineup with three goals in a four-game span from April 29 to May 13. But it’s been a quiet season since then for the Lions’ captain. The former Ballon d’Or winner has four assists since his last goal but it’s fair to say that for much of May and all of June, Kaká wasn’t quite himself in terms of performance.
That seems to be changing in July. Despite Orlando City’s losses in the last two games, Kaká has been a bright spot, although he has just one assist to show for his efforts in those matches. As mentioned above, the captain created four chances in the 1-0 loss to Atlanta. In the match just before the break on July 5, which the Lions lost to Toronto FC, 3-1, the Brazilian created five chances. Even though only one goal has resulted from his nine chances created, Kaká clearly has been doing what he does best over the past two contests.
“I think in the last two games now in particular his energy level seems a lot higher,” Kreis said. “His match fitness seems a lot higher. He’s getting himself into some really dangerous situations and positions and really in some spots to make some plays. It’s not quite coming off for him yet but I think if he keeps going like that and the players around him keep making runs like they are I think that things are going to turn into a positive for him very soon.”
“You know he's still got it,” said Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst. “He still one-on-one is a handful. He got by us a couple times down the side. Got a couple good crosses off. He is still a handful, he is still very good. We talked about it before the game, that he might be older and past his prime, but his brain is still there and physically he still has got that burst."
Hold the Rivalry Talk a Bit Longer
Everyone involved on Friday said the game was intense. It was a battle between two conference opponents close to each other in the standings, so you’d expect it to have a little bite to it. But people on both sides still are hesitant to use the “R” word.
“I think we’ll have to wait another 50 years to find out [if it’s a rivalry],” said Atlanta United Head Coach Tata Martinez. “We need another 50 years and 100 games between the two teams before we can call it a rivalry. Atlanta has only played 20 games in the league so far. I appreciate the enthusiasm you guys have about it but it’s far from being a rivalry.”
“I think it helps that there is two games right in a row. You build up momentum. But for us, for right now it doesn't matter. They are an Eastern Conference team and they are right on our heels for a playoff spot,” Parkhurst said.
Not currently being a rivalry doesn’t mean it won’t become one, however, which is something that both sides expect.
“I think this will turn into a nice rivalry,” Will Johnson said. “You know they had a good traveling supporters section so it was fun to see that. Hopefully we have an equally good, if not better, section next week when we go up there and play them. I think this is the start of something for sure.”