Orlando City fell behind again but this time the Lions couldn’t climb the mountain. A soft first-half penalty against Cristian Higuita allowed Josef Martinez to give Atlanta United an early lead and the visitors doubled through Ezequiel Barco in the first half en route to a 2-1 win in front of 24,232 rain-soaked fans at Orlando City Stadium.
On the plus side, Orlando (6-3-1, 19 points) looked like it belonged on the pitch with Supporters’ Shield-leading Atlanta (8-2-1, 25 points) and Justin Meram opened his account with his first goal in purple.
And, sadly, the Lions lost at least 90 seconds worth of time to find an equalizer due to a shower of debris from fans frustrated by the inconsistency of referee Alan Kelly, who had a poor game but was absolutely right in not whistling a late foul when Will Johnson went down in the final third, out wide of the penalty box. Kelly allowed no extra time for the delay and didn’t even wait for the cleanup before ordering Atlanta goalkeeper Alec Kann to restart play, blowing the whistle seconds later.
The club’s six-match winning streak came to an end, as well as the team’s string of six multi-goal games — both Orlando City MLS bests.
“Obviously an emotional, emotional affair tonight — passionate affair from the crowd to the staff to the players. I think everybody put everything they had into this game,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the match. “It’s unfortunate, because the way we played the second half I think on a lot of different nights we walk out of here with a draw. But some things went against us, for sure. Some decisions went against us, and some of our thoughts in the first half surely went against us.”
Kreis went with the same lineup from the win last weekend over Real Salt Lake except Chris Schuler was replaced by Amro Tarek. Schuler was in the 18 and Donny Toia was left off the team sheet.
The game was only nine minutes old when an officiating decision gave the visitors a leg up. Greg Garza went down after contact with Higuita and Kelly deemed it a foul in the penalty area. Higuita did get his hands up on Garza, who went down far too easily. Martinez stepped up and took a cheeky spot kick that put Atlanta up, 1-0.
“I saw Cristian, and he did raise his hands,” Kreis said. “And I don’t know whether there was physical contact or not — let’s hope that there was some contact — but the player went down extremely softly and for me that kind of penalty kick should never be called in a game like this.”
Orlando responded with a long-range attempt by Yoshimar Yotún that went wide, a Mohamed El-Munir effort that was deflected by the defense to Kann, and won a couple of corners. The second of those saw the Lions shouting for handball and it did look like Atlanta’s attempted clearance came off a defender’s hand during an attempted clearance. No call was given and it was not reviewed.
Atlanta then started making Orlando pay for a few sloppy moments. Jeff Larentowicz sent a training ground set piece wide in the 23rd minute. Eight minutes later, Atlanta doubled its lead after a midfield giveaway. Miguel Almiron sent a ball through to ignite a counter that HIguita failed to deal with and Barco sent it wide to Greg Garza. Garza sent it back to the top of the box and Barco finished the play off by knocking one in off the crossbar to make it 2-0 at the 31-minute mark.
The Lions got forward a few more times in the late stages of the first half. Dom Dwyer earned a free kick just outside the penalty area but Kljestan sent the set piece off the wall and out for a corner. The best Orlando City chance came in the 44th minute off a nice buildup that saw Chris Mueller cross for Higuita, who headed the ball right at Kann at point-blank range.
The teams each had five shots, with Orlando getting two on frame to Atlanta’s three. The Lions held 51% of the possession and both teams completed 82% of their passes in what was an evenly played first 45 minutes but Atlanta’s lightning-fast counter made the visitors the more dangerous side.
If Atlanta was more dangerous in the first half, it was Orlando’s turn after the break. Uri Rosell replaced Higuita to start the second half and it seemed to help calm things down for the Lions.
Dwyer earned a corner in the first minute of the second half, blasting a shot that deflected out. In the 52nd minute, Meram fired toward the near post, forcing a good diving save from Kann to keep it out. But five minutes later, Meram got his goal.
A long shot by Johnson knuckled in on frame and Kann could only fight it off with his fists. Meram beat Miles Robinson to the rebound, stepped around the Atlanta defender, and slotted it past Kann to pull the Lions back into the game in the 57th minute.
“It felt good to silence the haters,” Meram said of the goal. “Obviously I want to score and help the team but I want to win and that’s the main focus on this group. Maybe I should have scored two tonight and helped out. I think I had another chance as well.”
After Orlando’s goal, Atlanta had a brief spell where it tried to put the game away. Martinez nearly did so with a header that he sent wide in the 60th minute.
The Lions regrouped, with Josué Colmán coming on for Mueller in the 66th minute. Two minutes later, Orlando nearly found an equalizer. Dwyer fizzed a cross in for Meram but the defense did just enough to keep Orlando’s goal scorer from making good contact.
Colmán brought something extra to Orlando’s attack, getting down the right wing to send crosses into the box, playing quick passes with Rosell and Kljestan in the middle of the pitch, and earning a few corner kicks.
Meram was feeling his oats with a sneaky half-cross/half-shot that fooled Kann but missed the target in the 72nd minute. But the left wing was getting tired, and his turnover two minutes later allowed Almiron a good scoring chance. Atlanta’s No. 10 shot wide, however. Noted Lion killer Hector Villalba — a second-half sub for Barco — forced a good save from Bendik moments later.
Lamine Sané nearly got onto a corner kick cross in the 81st minute, arriving at the ball at the same time Kann did. Seconds later, Dom scorched a cross through the area that was just a smidge behind substitute Stefano Pinho, who had come on for Meram.
The emotions of the match began to boil over while Darlington Nagbe was down on the pitch and both Villalba and Yotún were booked. Yoshi will miss the Lions’ next match for yellow card accumulation. The emotions weren’t restricted to team vs. team, either. Kljestan and El-Munir barked at each other shortly thereafter and came together momentarily.
Perhaps the most egregious missed call of the evening took place in the 90th minute when Pinho was completely wrapped up and pulled down at the edge of the penalty area. It would have only been a free kick, but it was a definite foul and Kelly opted not to call anything.
Dwyer got his head on a corner in stoppage time but couldn’t get any power behind it and Kann collected it easily. That turned out to be the last opportunity for the Lions, who continued to throw bodies forward but when Johnson went down to the right of the box and no call was made, the bottles and cups rained down onto the pitch and Kelly opted to call the match complete.
“We can’t be that. We can’t do that,” Kreis said. “We certainly want to be a very, very difficult place to play but we need to show the right amount of restraint at that moment to not be throwing things on the field. We just can’t do that.”
The Lions ended up with 55% of the possession and an 11-8 shots advantage (6-4 on target). Both teams passed well, with Orlando City completing 83% and Atlanta 80%. The fouls were pretty even, with Orlando called for 12 and Atlanta 10, but the disparity in what was called was evident, as Higuita’s obstruction of Garza affected the game just 10 minutes in and several such instances on the other end — not even in the area — went uncalled.
The club released a statement after the match regarding the fan behavior in stoppage time, stating: “Orlando City SC does not support or condone the actions taken by fans at Orlando City Stadium during Sunday’s match against Atlanta United. Fans are strictly prohibited from throwing debris or objects onto the field. The club is using available resources to identify offenders, who will be penalized for their behavior in accordance with Major League Soccer and Orlando City Stadium regulations.
Orlando City SC takes great pride in the passion of its supporters and how they make Orlando City Stadium the most difficult venue to play at in MLS, but the safety of fans, players, officials and staff members is our top priority.”
The Lions will try to bounce back Friday when they visit BMO Field to take on Toronto FC at 8 p.m.