It was billed as biggest game in Orlando City’s history but the Lions didn’t play like it in a 2-0 U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss to Atlanta United at Exploria Stadium. A club record crowd for a U.S. Open Cup match (18,461) showed up to cheer on the Lions and see history made. But City gave the fans little to cheer about and what could have been a memorable night ended only in disappointment.
Orlando struggled to link up on several passes that could have had runners in behind the defense but they were underhit, overhit, or hit right at defenders instead of in between. When the Lions did get opportunities, they couldn’t hit the target.
With all of Atlanta’s firepower, it was Eric Remedi and Emerson Hyndman who produced the offense instead of the likes of Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, or Justin Meram.
“Very disappointed to get beat,” said Head Coach James O’Connor after the match. “First half especially I thought we didn’t really play anywhere near like to our capacity. I think the occasion seemed to get to us. Second half our intent was a lot better. We were camped in their half. But we needed more quality. It was very evident.”
O’Connor sent out essentially a first-choice lineup. Quarterfinals star Adam Grinwis got the start in goal, with the back line full of regular starters, both Designated Players up top next to Tesho Akindele, and a midfield of Will Johnson, Sacha Kljestan, and Sebas Mendez.
Atlanta controlled the opening 15 minutes of the first half as the Lions struggled to get on the ball — or stay on it when they did get it. The visitors fashioned their first of six first-half corners within the first minute of the game.
Former Lion Justin Meram and Miles Robinson each nodded off frame on set pieces in the opening minutes.
Dom Dwyer put the ball in the net in the fifth minute but he was correctly ruled offside on the play.
Pity Martinez got in behind the defense in the 15th minute and fired into the outside netting.
Orlando’s first good chance came in the 19th minute when Nani fed a cross to Dwyer but his left-footed effort was blasted just over the bar. It was a great opportunity to take the early lead but the striker went for power and just couldn’t keep it down.
Orlando started to get more into the match after that for about the next 10 minutes. Joao Moutinho turned Atlanta over in the 21st minute and fed across for Tesho Akindele, who was bodied off the ball at the top of the area but no foul was given. Moments later, Nani appeared to get clipped by Julian Gressel but again no foul was called.
Around the half-hour mark the visitors got back on the front foot. Remedi came up the middle and no one challenged him so he fired a shot that forced a Grinwis save. Three minutes later, Ezequiel Barco scuffed a shot off a Gressel cross. Robinson sent another free header wide off a corner kick in the 34th minute.
Atlanta finally broke through in the 37th. Remedi forced a diving save from Grinwis, who knocked the ball out to his left. Gressel gathered it and sent it back in to Remedi, who had continued his run. The midfielder took the shot first time and scored.
Moutinho tried to pull the goal right back. He dispossessed Franco Escobar and fired a shot just wide of Brad Guzan’s goal in the 38th.
Johnson forced Guzan’s first save of the night in the 45th minute and after two minutes of stoppage time the teams headed to the locker rooms.
Atlanta took a 1-0 lead into the break, leading in shots (12-4), shots on target (5-1), possession (61%), and passing accuracy (85%-73%). It was the last stat that really hurt Orlando, as balls that were hit too hard or too softly in the middle of the pitch ruined several good opportunities at transition chances.
The Lions fashioned the first good chance of the second half. Ruan finally got forward and crossed a ball for Dwyer but Escobar got a foot in at the last second and deflected it out for a corner.
Five minutes later, Nani chipped a perfect back-door pass for Kljestan at the back post but the midfielder hit his shot over the bar.
“Clearly we didn’t have enough shots on target tonight to have Brad Guzan forced into saves,” Kljestan said. “That’s pretty much it. Not enough of us finished our plays on target.”
O’Connor tried subbing on fresh reinforcements in the 58th minute to get after the game, bringing on Chris Mueller and Benji Michel for Dwyer and Kljestan. It didn’t provide much help. Both players were certainly active but the same things plagued the team after the substitutions as before — general lack of sharpness with the final ball, a hesitancy to take quick, positive actions, and just not being on the same page.
A good example of that came in the 71st minute when Michel broke down the left side and into the area. He had room and time to pick out a pass but sent a mostly hopeful cross to the top of the area, where it took a deflection and then fell between two players. Nani eventually got onto it and shot but the delay allowed Atlanta to block his shot.
Atlanta defended well all night and was content to concede possession in the game’s later stages but Orlando couldn’t take advantage. Akindele found himself with space at the top of the area in the 74th minute but fired well over the bar.
O’Connor was forced to sub off Moutinho in the 78th minute for what he said after the game was a tight hamstring. Alex De John came on and the shape of the team changed and that may have led to the game’s second goal. Just seconds after the sub, the visitors got forward and scored their second. Remedi played the ball to Escobar on the left, who lost Ruan and slid the ball into the middle for an onrushing Hyndman, who beat Lamine Sané and slotted home. Orlando seemed a bit out of sorts defensively just after the substitution and Atlanta pounced on that immediately to put the game away.
“They had one real chance second half and it’s a goal,” O’Connor said.
From that point on, it was a matter of watching a few more breakdowns in the final third and a weak dribbler on goal from Mueller to account for City’s second shot on target all night. Seven minutes of stoppage time produced nothing of note other than Mueller’s grass cutter and the final whistle ended Orlando’s Open Cup run.
Atlanta out-shot the Lions 15-12 (7-2 on target), held 51% of the final possession and out-passed Orlando (79%-77%).
“I don’t know if it was nerves or it was just a little bit of general tiredness. We just looked a little bit sluggish,” O’Connor said. “I don’t know whether that was just the emotion of the occasion seemed to get to us. We just looked a yard off — especially first half. We had big moments in the game. We haven’t capitalized...you can’t do that against a team like Atlanta.”
The coach got a bit agitated when it was pointed out that the Lions had yet to beat Atlanta, stating he doesn’t care about what happened before he became coach and that the team just needs to be mentally stronger to beat their neighbors to the north.
“I’m not interested in that. It’s all mentality,” he said. “We were beaten tonight because we weren’t good enough.”
Kljestan said the team can take some positives from a deep Cup run into the rest of the MLS season.
“I think we dug deep on a few of these games,” Kljestan said. “When we played NYCFC, that was a gut punch to give up a goal in the last second but we reacted well and ended up winning the game in penalties. The game against New England also an overtime game. So, it was a good journey for us and I think we learned a lot about ourselves. And also we used some rotation in those games and a lot of guys who maybe aren’t regular performers ended up being big players in the Open Cup for us. So, I think we’ve got to draw confidence from that and we’ve got to know that this cannot derail our season.”
The Lions will need to shake off the disappointment quickly, as they return to MLS action on Saturday night when they travel to Canada to take on Toronto FC at 7:30 p.m. at BMO Field.