Orlando City’s 2-1 win over New York City FC on Saturday night showed a budding chemistry building on the pitch between 2018 MLS Rookie of the Year finalist Chris Mueller and new Lion Tesho Akindele. Those two players scored the Orlando goals to lift the Lions from a 1-0 deficit to a victory, with Akindele not only assisting on Mueller’s tally but also creating space for the goal by dragging a defender away.
“(Mueller’s) had a great little partnership with Tesho and I thought he took his goal well,” said Head Coach James O’Connor after the match on Saturday night.
The duo worked well together at the top of O’Connor’s 3-5-2 formation throughout the night and their young partnership began in a dorm room over a few games of FIFA.
“One thing at IMG is we were in these villas so there was like six people to a room,” Akindele said after Saturday’s match. “There was like a living room. So, like in our living room we were playing FIFA. Everybody was coming through, whereas in a hotel sometimes it’s easy to just get locked in. The villas made it easy for people to flow in and out for two weeks and we really got to know each other.”
As the two young attacking players and their teammates played video games together, they build off-the-field friendships that seem to be paying dividends on the pitch as well. Orlando City dominated possession and scoring chances on Saturday, particularly in the first half, against a good NYCFC squad that featured mostly starters, including pesky defensive midfielder Alex Ring, who has helped the Pigeons shut down Orlando’s offense in the past.
“(The partnership with Akindele) grew a lot when we had that two weeks out in IMG,” Mueller said. “I think that coming from that — that’s not only with Tesho but with all the guys — we built like a really good team chemistry and you could see that translate out onto the pitch, that all of us are good friends and I think that makes us a really good team.”
Those words will be music to the ears of a fan base that saw an Orlando City squad in 2018 that seemed to range from merely disjointed to outright fractured. Soccer is a sport where team chemistry can make or break a team regardless of how much talent is present. It’s hard to get any real sense of any preseason trends due to the first three friendlies being closed, but Saturday night’s game against one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams was encouraging for the way the team moved, found each other with the ball, and flowed forward on the offensive end.
“I think (the offense has improved) in a lot of ways,” Mueller said. “We’ve added a lot of good pieces. I think we’re starting to understand the philosophy that we’re trying to build in here and you could see it (Saturday). We just had really good control over the game. We possessed the ball really well. We moved it really well. We understood where the space was. So, I think at the end of the day, you could just see the improvement out there.”
Although starting striker Dom Dwyer is still out with a quad injury and new attacking midfielder/winger Nani has yet to lace up his boots for a game, it’s good to see the Mueller-Akindele partnership taking flight. The two players were complimentary of each other after Saturday’s match and the chemistry should only continue to grow as they play together more and more.
“I like to play with Tesho. He’s a great player,” Mueller said. “He’s got a great mind for the game. He finishes just about everything that comes off of his foot. So it makes it easy to slip him in and expect him to score.”