Orlando City had a chance to make a statement Wednesday night against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Union. Not only were the Lions trying to win consecutive matches for the first time in 2019 after alternating league wins with losses, but a victory would also announce that James O’Connor’s bunch was truly progressing from a league bottom feeder to a legitimate threat for postseason play.
For 45 minutes, the Lions did make that statement. Orlando played well in the opening 10 minutes, looking eager to run the Union off the pitch. You could look at the period after Chris Mueller’s goal as a lull by the Lions or as the conference leaders responding to an early kick in the teeth, but either way, Orlando largely did what it had done on Saturday in Columbus: kept most of the danger out on the perimeter and relied on a strong central defensive pairing to clear away the crosses in hopes of springing a counter.
The game plan was fine but it all flew out the window just before the half when Robin Jansson was sent off and started a chain of events that led to a 3-1 home loss — the team’s third multi-goal loss of the season, with all of them coming at home.
The most glaring takeaway is that Jansson’s sending-off ruined the game for Orlando, and the fans who braved awful weather on a midweek night. Fafa Picault’s pace was the catalyst and although the Swede gamely tried a desperation tackle — and did manage to touch the ball first — he didn’t knock it far enough off line to clearly deny a goal-scoring opportunity and his awkward position after the lunge resulted in scissoring down the speedy Philadelphia winger. I can’t argue the red card and won’t pardon the offense, but the alternative there is to allow a dangerous opportunity where the Union likely would have scored anyway. That’s an unfortunate result for a player who has largely settled down Orlando’s back line and has combined with Lamine Sané to finally create some stable play in the Lions’ central defense for the first time in the team’s MLS era.
Seeing More Red
There’s really no way to dispute Sacha Kljestan’s red card either. It was perhaps as desperate an attempt to win the ball as Jansson’s, but it was far more dangerous and infinitely less necessary. Unlike Jansson’s play, there was no immediate danger of conceding after the turnover in Kljestan’s case. I don’t believe the midfielder had any intent or malice on the play. I think he was just frustrated and desperate to win the ball back and made a horrible decision to make a flying lunge at it. Sacha is no spring chicken anymore, and perhaps he once would have closed the gap enough to win a ball in that fashion but he’s been logging a lot of minutes in recent weeks and age hasn’t been kind to him in the lost steps department. Fatigue may have played a role in both the decision he made and the lack of intended execution and O’Connor alluded to that in his post-game press conference. I expect he’ll receive an additional game or two suspension for his horror tackle on Jamiro Monteiro as his desperation lunge resulted in his studs finding a leg rather than a soccer ball.
Cash Money is Progressing
With goals in each of his last two matches, Mueller has not only achieved a new modest career high total of five, but he’s also shown that his body has adjusted to the rigors of Major League Soccer. Last season, Mueller had scored all three of his goals on the year (in consecutive games) by the end of April, and didn’t find the net for the final six months of the season.
“Yeah, I feel good,” Mueller responded to my question last night about him finding his groove. “I feel confident and I just want to keep helping the team any way I can. I want to get results, first and foremost, right? So the goals are nice, but first I want to win.”
Mueller was part of 10 total goals last season (three goals, seven assists) and he’s already contributed to eight in 2019 (five goals, three assists). Becoming a more consistent threat, as it not only eases the burden on Dom Dwyer, Nani, and Tesho Akindele, but it also forces opponents to recognize the danger he possesses, which can in turn open up distribution lanes for others to score more easily.
Welcome Home, Will
More and more of Will Johnson’s haters are coming around in 2019 and it was nearly impossible to look at his performance last night and see beyond the positives. Johnson ran his hind end off all night, regardless of how many of his teammates were sent to the locker room early. He shuttled the ball back and forth, finding spaces for continued possession. Johnson tied Kljestan for the team lead in chances created (2), went 3/3 in long ball completion, completed 98.2% of his pass attemps, and was his usual pest of a self defensively (a team-high four tackles, a co-leading five clearances, and an interception). He also tied for the team lead in shot attempts (three), although his accuracy on those shots was very defensive-midfielderesque. He was easily the Man of the Match for Orlando on the night and a reunion with Cristian Higuita and Sebas Mendez as the starting trio can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this passing chart as much as I do:
The Other Half
I won’t argue that his game was without flaws last night, because it wasn’t, but Lamine Sané is still showing himself to be a useful player when healthy and paired with someone with whom he has time to build chemistry. Sané got caught of two minds on the Union’s first goal, starting with an intention of coming out to meet Monteiro, then changing his mind. This created uncertainty in Jansson, who strayed too far from Kacper Przybylko as a result, and ultimately it allowed both too much time for Monteiro to pass and too much space for Jansson to recover after. Sané also may have been able to make a desperation lunge to block the eventual Przybylko shot. (As an aside, I’ve seen nothing on replay that changes my initial opinion watching it live that Tesho Akindele was fouled to jump start that play, although I have only the highlight package to go on, so you can’t really get a good look at the players’ feet. I digress.)
Aside from that, Sané — playing like Oates without a Hall or Garfunkel without a Simon — managed two tackles, five clearances, three interceptions, and a blocked shot. His 95.8% passer rating was good, he completed all four of his long ball attempts, and even got in a cross. In fact, as part of O’Connor having Orlando still pursuing the match rather than just seeing it out, Sané even got forward a few times, winning a corner while taking on two Philadelphia defenders with the ball at his feet.
People tend to give Lamine stick largely because he earns nearly a million dollars a year. That’s not an indictment of Sané, nor is it his fault. I’ll never begrudge a player making whatever he can get his boss to pay him. It just shows the wasteful nature of Orlando City’s previous regime. If the former Bundesliga man and Senegalese international were making half his current salary, most fans would likely be fine with the team’s investment in him.
That’s what stood out to me on a lightning-delayed night at Exploria Stadium. If you want a bonus takeaway it’s that I’d like to see another referee for a game against the Union (which we’ll get on Saturday). Chris Penso officiated both league games against Philadelphia last season — making three consecutive games against the Union he’s officiated — as well as the final meeting in 2015. Penso has given 12 yellow cards to Orlando, sending off three players in those four match-ups (two straight reds), to nine yellows for the Union. Eight of those yellow cards against Orlando came in one game, so those bad vibes have never gone away, even though Penso was completely justified in both red cards last night. However, I do think two Union players were extremely fortunate not to be booked early last night.
The good news is that although Orlando lost by two, we still haven’t seen one of those 3-0 or 4-0 howlers that have been all too common in recent years (the Lions suffered four of those last year, as well as 4-1 and 5-2 thrashings, and five in 2017 to go along with a 6-1 beatdown).
Incremental progress is still progress, although we’ll find out if that continues Saturday with an Orlando team that’ll be missing perhaps its best defender.
Anyway, let me know what you saw in the comments space below.