After four matches without a win (0-1-3), the goals finally returned in buckets to Orlando as the Lions thumped Atlanta United 4-1 at Exploria Stadium. Daryl Dike, Chris Mueller, Tesho Akindele, and Matheus Aias — his first in MLS — scored the goals, with the Lions (9-3-8, 35 points) finishing an unbeaten four-game set against Atlanta (5-12-4, 19 points) for the 2020 season.
Orlando won twice and drew twice without a loss across the four meetings. Tonight’s win was Orlando’s first at home against the Five Stripes, improving to 1-4-1 at home in the all-time series.
“It’s certainly a game that means a lot for our franchise,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “First, beating Atlanta, but secondly to see the boys performing so well as a group. Tonight the urgency for us to win those three points [was] big.”
Pareja’s lineup included Pedro Gallese in goal behind a back line of Kamal Miller, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. The midfield featured Nani, Joey DeZart, Junior Urso, and Mueller behind an attacking duo of Akindele and Dike. Neither Uri Rosell — who came off the MLS Injury Report — nor Mauricio Pereyra were on the bench.
Orlando City started the match looking sluggish and indecisive, turning the ball over needlessly and failing to recognize where teammates were going. It was a curious start to the match, but the Lions eventually settled in.
Before that could happen, Atlanta fashioned a few good opportunities, including some early set pieces. Gallese made a diving stop in the third minute on a free kick shot by Ezequiel Barco. Then Barco got free on a counter created by an Orlando turnover in the 13th and was wide open but hit a soft shot right at Gallese.
Fernando Meza headed over the goal on a corner kick in the 16th minute as Atlanta continued to get the game’s only shots. Three minutes later, Jurgen Damm cut in from right to left and curled a shot just inches wide of the far post.
Pareja said that the team was set up tonight to allow Atlanta time on the ball so the Lions could find opportunities to get behind on the counter.
“We knew that with the formation that we had today, it was more planning to be a team who can counter,” Pareja said. “And today the initiative for us to have the ball, it was not as consistent as we’re used to. The boys absorbed that pressure when Atlanta came to us and had possession and started just getting some chances, but we knew that they were going to give us opportunities in the space that was behind them. And that was exactly what happened in the first half.”
Orlando City finally got a shot off in the 23rd minute when Akindele hit Dike in stride. The shot deflected wide off a defender but the referee didn’t see the deflection and awarded a goal kick.
The Lions finally broke through in the 29th minute. Ruan cut in from the right and made a great pass to set up Dike in the middle. The rookie turned brilliantly away from pressure to free himself and fired home his sixth goal of the season.
“Today we might have focused a little bit harder in front of the goal, and you know, dealt with some of those chances better,” Dike said. “I think that’s something that we’ve been kind of stressing — that we need to take advantage of all the chances that we create because I mean every single game we’re creating these chances, and now we just need to start finding the back of the net, which, luckily tonight it was something that was falling for us.”
Orlando nearly doubled the lead two minutes later. Atlanta gifted the Lions a corner kick with an awful back pass for Brad Guzan that was well off target. The ball fell at Urso’s feet and he fired just wide of the far post in the 31st minute.
Dike then sliced through seemingly the entire Atlanta defense moments later, then fed Akindele for an apparent goal but the referee blew the whistle and called an agonizingly soft foul on the rookie striker, who did very little wrong. The Lions were flying at that point. Nani had a shot blocked soon after that from the top of the area and then fizzed a pass to Akindele in the 37th. Tesho fired but had his shot well saved by a diving Guzan.
The final action of the half produced the second goal. Mueller was fouled by Laurence Wyke to set up a free kick in stoppage time. Cash took the free kick himself, beat the wall and buried his shot inside the near post to make it 2-0. It was his team-leading ninth goal of the year.
“It kind of gave us the momentum to continue our play into the second half,” Dike said of Mueller’s goal. “Obviously, phenomenal goal as it was, it lifted the team. I think sometimes maybe we’ve fallen a little bit asleep after our first [goal] but I think today we did a really good job of keeping the momentum going.”
That was it for the opening period. Orlando was out-shot 11-7 in the first half but the Lions had a 3-2 edge in shots on target. Atlanta had more corners (3-1) and more possession (55.1%-44.9%), and both teams were accurate with 88% of their passes in the first half.
The Five Stripes tried to jump on Orlando quickly after the break but couldn’t muster much in the final third aside from some shots off target from distance. It took Orlando about seven minutes to settle in again and start to get chances in transition. Urso fired wide in the 51st after the Lions cleared a corner kick opportunity and a minute later Ruan nearly picked out Dike in front with a chipped cross.
The lead bulged to 3-0 in the 60th minute when Dike found Akindele in front and with his last involvement of the match the Canadian beat Guzan before subbing off for Andres Perea.
Orlando kept turning around the Atlanta attack and getting chances. Substitute Benji Michel fired on target from a tight angle but Guzan made the save in the 67th minute. Four minutes later, Michel fed Perea for what should have been a goal but the 19-year-old Colombian sprayed his shot just wide of the far post.
Aias entered the match in the 79th minute for Dike and Alexander Alvarado made his MLS/Orlando City debut at the same time, coming on for Mueller. Both newcomers played a role in the Lions’ final goal of the night.
However, Atlanta pulled one back before that happened. Marcelino Moreno was able to find Cubo Torres on a corner kick cross in the 87th minute. Torres got inside of Miller and Jansson couldn’t quite get up high enough to prevent the cross from finding its target. Torres’ header went off of Gallese from point-blank range and into the net to make it 3-1.
But Orlando had the last laugh. Alvarado was fouled by Mohammed Adams in the 91st minute just outside the Atlanta penalty area. Mendez fired a shot with the ensuing free kick and it hit an Atlanta defender, bounced off of Aias and trickled in behind Guzan, who was left leaning the wrong way. Aias’ goal was his first in MLS in only his second appearance and in about his 12th or so minute of play.
“It’s been a little over three months since I last really played and got a lot of minutes,” Aias said through an interpreter. “It was a great goal because I haven’t scored in a while. It’s my girl’s birthday so to be able to do that today, it was just a great win for a team that’s working really hard and we’re happy to get the win here at home.”
The Lions ended up out-shooting Atlanta, 15-14 (6-3 on goal). Atlanta won more corners (9-2) and held more possession for the game (54.4%-45.6%). Both teams passed at an 89% rate.
City now has three matches left in the regular season. Orlando cannot win the Supporters’ Shield, because even winning out would only get the Lions even on points with Philadelphia. The first tiebreaker is wins and the best Orlando can do is win 12, while Philly has already amassed 13.
But tonight’s win was a much-needed step toward finishing in the top four and getting a home playoff game. City pulled level with Columbus on points but the Crew have one more win, setting up a huge match next Wednesday in Orlando New York City lurks just two points behind the Lions with Orlando holding an extra game in hand.
Orlando City’s next match will be Sunday at Red Bull Arena when the Lions visit the Montreal Impact in their temporary home at 7:30 p.m.