Tesho Akindele scored the game’s only goal as the Lions evened their 2019 record to .500 (6-6-1) at Exploria Stadium with a 1-0 win over Sporting Kansas City. Orlando City (9-11-6, 33 points) got a much-needed win in the playoff race despite a general lack of sharpness, especially in the second half, but Sporting (7-11-7, 28 points) could not take advantage of constant turnovers by the Lions after halftime to find an equalizer.
With their ninth win of the season, the Lions moved one ahead of last season’s eight. Orlando’s seventh shutout of the year matches the club single-season record set in 2015 and matched in 2017.
“I gotta try to catch me breath after that,” said Head Coach James O’Connor after the match. “Look, it wasn’t pretty. We had some passages that you think, ‘OK, yeah, first half, not bad.’ Nice goal. Some good chances first half. Second half just became a complete game of transition and for us it became pure heart.”
O’Connor stuck with a 4-2-3-1, replacing Robinho with Akindele in the starting XI from Saturday’s lineup at Toronto. Santiago Patino returned to the bench and Robinho didn’t dress. Ruan (hamstring) was out, along with Joao Moutinho (hamstring), and Cristian Higuita (hamstring).
Orlando should have scored in just the second minute. Chris Mueller’s cross found Dom Dwyer wide open at the back post but he didn’t make good contact and his case of the yips continued on. The forward has to be seeing shadows out there at this point.
Sporting’s first shot came two minutes later when Jimmy Medranda fired at Brian Rowe from distance with an effort that didn’t trouble the Orlando goalkeeper.
The Lions’ lineup was dealt a blow — literally — in the eighth minute. Kyle Smith played a give-and-go and made a nice run into space. Instead of giving him the ball back, Mueller took a shot that was deflected into the air. Tim Melia came off his line to catch it and Smith ran full speed into his elbow, cutting him above the eye. Smith stayed down on the turf and was treated by the training staff before going to the locker room and getting six stitches. Shane O’Neill replaced him officially in the 12th minute.
“I thought the first half was all right,” O’Neill said. “We had the ball, going forward. Felt really good. I felt like I was growing into the game and kind of expressing myself. And then the second half it was tough. The second half was very tough. They pinned us back. Obviously Russell is a tough guy to go one against one with. But I think for the most part we did a good job.”
The teams exchanged possessions for a bit until Orlando opened the scoring in the 21st minute. Uri Rosell slipped a pass to Carlos Ascues and the Peruvian cut back a pass for Akindele as Dwyer drew defenders toward the goal to open space. The Canadian smashed the ball into the net past Melia to make it 1-0.
“I saw Dom make a good hard run into the box and I saw some space around the six,” Akindele said. “I thought, if I move there and the ball comes to me I could score. I don’t even think Carlos looked, he just put the ball in a good area and I was there and was able to finish it. But Dom took two or three defenders away with him, which led to the goal.”
The Lions had only a few half chances after that. Mueller put a bit too much sauce on a ball that could have sprung Dwyer in behind in the 28th minute. After Johnny Russell’s header from a bad angle went over the bar in the 31st minute, Akindele took a pass from Nani but flicked it wide of goal in the 33rd.
Nani and Felipe Gutierrez got into it and both earned a yellow card in the 37th minute before Graham Zusi fired wide in the 40th with the last half chance for either side in the opening half.
Shots were even at the break at 4-4 (1-1 on target). Sporting Kansas City held more of the ball (54%) and passed more efficiently (88%-82%) in the opening half.
The second half completely belonged to the visitors, as the Lions struggled to maintain possession, wasting numerous good opportunities to go on and score a second goal with misplaced passes, bad reads, or heavy touches. The game devolved into almost entirely transition after the break. O’Connor said the humid conditions adversely affected the quality of play of both teams.
“To be honest the humidity played a huge factor in the game tonight,” O’Connor said. “I think you could see both teams were really impacted by the humidity, and that’s when you need the character and the heart to be able to push though. That’s the one massive credit I can give the players, is the heart and the commitment that they showed to dig in and to push through because it was very tough conditions tonight.”
Robin Jansson made the first of several good defensive plays in the second half when he ran down a ball and made a sliding challenge to keep second-half sub Erik Hurtado from having a breakaway just three minutes after the restart.
In the 58th, halftime sub Benji Michel had a chance to play Dwyer in but he hesitated to make the pass and then delivered a poor one, wasting an early second-half chance for Orlando.
Russell fired a shot from distance in the 63rd that went way over the bar as the Orlando defense did well to limit space in the penalty area and leave Sporting with long-range opportunities.
Dwyer took a pass from Akindele in the 67th minute but with no real angle to shoot he tried to finesse through the defense and lost the ball to veteran Matt Besler.
SKC’s first dangerous opportunity came at the 68-minute mark when sub Benny Feilhaber fired a shot but it was hit right at Rowe. A minute later, Sporting went on the counter after a wayward cross in the attacking end by O’Neill but Jansson was again there to make a vital stop on a sparkling night for the beefy Swede.
Dwyer saw a shot finally on target in the 72nd minute but it was blocked out in front. A minute later the striker showed some good hold-up play and sent the ball into space for Michel but the flag came up a beat after Benji took a heavy touch and then had his shot blocked by Melia.
Roger Espinoza nearly tied the game in spectacular fashion in the 77th minute with a back-heel try at the top of the six but he hit the shot toward Rowe, who gratefully covered it.
Sporting then started a parade of corner kicks — most of which were taken short as the visitors dominated possession. They nearly drew level in the 83rd when Feilhaber snuck in behind O’Neill and took a pass from Espinoza, but the midfielder sent his shot just wide, wasting Sporting’s best chance of the entire night.
“There were one or two lapses and we got away with it, but at the end of the day the most important thing was getting a win,” O’Neill said. “We just dug it out.”
Moments after another vital blocked cross by Jansson, the Lions could have put the game away in the 89th minute in transition. Nani got the ball wide on the right and played in substitute Sacha Kljestan. Melia came off his line and Kljestan tried to chip him but the goalkeeper got a piece and Gutierrez swooped in and cleared the ball off the line.
Seconds later, Jansson made yet another outstanding 1-v-1 challenge to deny Hurtado a breakaway. Orlando then saw out the five minutes of stoppage and laid claim to another victory to move to 2-0-1 at home and 2-2-1 overall in the all-time league series against SKC.
The visitors led in shots (14-8), shots on target (3-2), possession (56%), and passing accuracy (85%-81%) but the Lions led the only statistic that matters.
The Lions knew they didn’t play their best game but were satisfied with getting the three points.
“I think I’m happy we won,” Akindele said. “Do I think we play the best we could have? No. But that’s kind of like the mark of a good team, I think. Sometimes you play good, sometimes you don’t, but good teams find a way to win. That’s what we did today and that’s what’s most important.”
The Lions have a short turnaround with a trip to face Minnesota United on Saturday night.