Midfielder Sacha Kljestan finally got his first assist of 2019 on the game-winning goal in Orlando City’s 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. The goal went to Nani, although the Portuguese star knew little about it, as it was Kljestan’s shot that ricocheted into the net off of Nani.
The goal was the culmination of a game plan set in motion by Orlando Head Coach James O’Connor and Kljestan’s ability to implement the gaffer’s instructions. It took 88 minutes to do it, but the Lions finally broke down the entrenched Whitecaps.
O’Connor knew his team was in for a long day on Saturday. The visiting Vancouver Whitecaps had played a tough home game just a few days earlier and beat a high flying LAFC side, then flew across the continent to play in the MLS city furthest from their home stadium.
The Orlando City coach knew that the Whitecaps would likely play a defensive-minded game and try to hit the Lions on the counter even before the lineups came out, revealing a 5-3-2 formation from Vancouver. The Caps chose to go with five defenders across the back, shielded by a three-man midfield led by Felipe. The strategy was to absorb Orlando’s pressure and look for opportunities to spring forwards Yordy Reyna and Fredy Montero behind Orlando’s back line in transition.
Because of the way he expected the game to go, O’Connor said after the match that he’d told his substitutes on the bench to pay close attention during the game and look for areas where Vancouver might be leaving some space that could be exploited if they were subbed in. One of those bench players was Kljestan, who went on to make only his second substitute appearance in 38 total games played with Orlando.
The veteran was paying attention. He pointed out what he saw to his teammates at halftime.
“Watching from the bench, I think that we were playing a little too slow with the ball throughout the course of the game,” he said after Saturday’s match. “Anytime the ball turned over I think our best option would have been to go straight to goal because as soon as you slow it down and make one, two, three passes, they got their whole 11 guys behind the ball and then it becomes difficult to break down.
“The things I tried to mention to the guys at halftime were continuing to work the ball on the wing, try to create 2-v-1s or 3-v-2s, and then try to get crosses in the box, but we needed more than Dom [Dwyer] in the box. He was very isolated [Saturday] and pretty much one against three center backs almost all game.”
The clogged middle limited the effectiveness of fullbacks Joao Moutinho and Ruan, who would typically receive the ball near the corner and be able to either fizz dangerous crosses into the box or beat one man to create havoc in the penalty area. This is what Vancouver wanted Orlando to try against its five-man back line with a tight three-man midfield just a few yards out front. There was no room for Moutinho or Ruan to get in behind as they normally attempt to do, and crosses into the teeth of the defense were cleared out easily by center backs Derek Cornelius, Doneil Henry, and Erik Godoy.
The Lions’ midfielders began ignoring the fullbacks’ overlapping runs and looking for other ways in, but the Whitecaps defended well and stayed disciplined.
“They came here and they set up very defensively, tactically,” said Kljestan. “They played behind the ball a lot and tried to hit us on the counter, and they defended very well, so it was hard for us to carve out chances.”
Orlando finally carved out a good chance in the 88th minute as time wound down.
Starting out on the left side, Kljestan played a routine ball wide to Oriol Rosell. The Spaniard switched the point of attack to Ruan on the right wing. The Brazilian fullback used his speed to beat his man toward the end line, then cut his cross back toward the top of the area, instead of trying to pick out Tesho Akindele among Vancouver’s tall defenders. Kljestan ran onto it and struck it well. The ball hit Nani and deflected into the net, giving Orlando a lead late in the match.
“We needed a little more action in the box and fortunately, the goal came that way,” Kljestan said. “I think it was a cutback cross from Ruan and I think we had three guys in the box and so it created a bit of confusion in front of their back line and fortunately, it ended up in the back of the net.”
Actually, Kljestan got that slightly wrong. There were four Lions in the box. Nani and Akindele were deep in the box and pulled the Vancouver defenders with them, providing space at the top for Kljestan and Chris Mueller. It gave Kljestan time and space to run onto the cross and take his shot. The deflection was fortunate, but it was the buildup on the sequence and the movement of Orlando’s forwards that finally broke Vancouver down the way O’Connor had been looking for the Lions to do it.
“Sacha obviously has impacted the game. I think the most pleasing aspect for me as a coach is that we’ve got players that will accept the decision and then will be intentional about trying to go and impact the game,” O’Connor said. “Sacha showed tremendous maturity in the way he handled it and the way he came on. We wanted to have him coming in from the bench because we felt that he could perhaps impact the game, whether that was deep in our half or in their half. He’s got a good football brain and he’s someone again that we’re really pleased that we have somebody like that on the football club.”
Orlando’s substitutes have been making O’Connor’s personnel decisions look good in 2019 with the way they’re successfully influencing the game when called upon. No one has embodied that more than Mueller so far, but Kljestan showed on Saturday that having a good soccer mind on the bench can provide Orlando with a game-changing weapon late in the match.