Orlando City allowed a league-low 0.16 expected goals against on Saturday night in the 2020 season opener against Real Salt Lake, which is an encouraging sign for the season ahead. While it would be easy to point out that RSL was missing a couple of key players up front — and the same can be said of Orlando — and the visitors’ tactics helped that number a bit, it was still a strong initial showing by the Lions.
The truth is that Real Salt Lake created nothing of note offensively. The visitors attempted only five shots. Only one of those attempts came inside the 18-yard box (and just barely). One shot was on target — a weak effort from distance by Aaron Herrera.
But regardless of who was out of the lineup for Real Salt Lake, Orlando’s midfield prevented the ball from getting into the space between the midfielders and the back line. So it didn’t matter much who was on the field for RSL. The visitors would have needed more individual 1-v-1 wins in the middle of the park to break down Orlando because the midfielders won the ball back or compressed RSL’s space to play through the middle, while the Lions’ back line gobbled up anything that was sent over the top or into the corners.
It was a complete defensive performance, but the back line and new goalkeeper Pedro Gallese had an extremely quiet night mainly because of the way the midfield of Junior Urso, Sebas Mendez, and Mauricio Pereyra performed. The Lions pressed well as a team. The midfielders supported well, especially on the wings, and they won the ball back in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch so often that they rarely had to defend at all — even with RSL possessing the ball nearly half the time over the 90 minutes (49.3%).
RSL’s best chances to score came late in the game when a few unnecessary turnovers by Ruan and Mendez allowed the visitors to send in some crosses and win some corner kicks. RSL wing Justin Meram also won a few individual battles with his fresher legs in the last 15 minutes.
Despite coughing up the ball late a few times, Mendez had a strong game. He and Urso complemented each other well, and they did a good job of forcing play wide, where Ruan and Joao Moutinho were waiting to help. Moutinho had a particularly good match, finishing with 97 touches and filling the stat sheet with a game-high five interceptions, five clearances (tied with Robin Jansson for the team lead), two tackles, and four aerials won (tied with Antonio Carlos for the team lead).
The positioning of the midfield allowed Moutinho to more easily read the game, as RSL was limited in how to get the ball forward. Urso, Mendez, and Pereyra combined for 217 touches and the following heat map shows the protective shield that the trio provided.
“They understand that they are the ones who glue our team defensively and offensively,” Pareja said of his three midfielders. “And the minds, the energy, and the effort that they put in that part of the field is very good and healthy for our team. Sebas and Urso…they gave us a lot of personality in that part of the pitch.”
When you add in the fullbacks, the lockdown is even more evident. Where was RSL supposed to go with the ball when in possession?
Orlando’s recipe for success starts with this type of coverage across the field. But obviously more has to happen up front. While the forward line of Benji Michel, Tesho Akindele, and Chris Mueller helped pressure RSL and forced turnovers all over the pitch, more sharpness will be needed. Orlando often took the ball away, only to give it right back with a mistimed, off line, or poorly weighted pass, which foiled some promising transition attacks.
The Lions also wasted scoring chances by firing over the bar. And these were good opportunities, with five of Orlando’s nine attempts coming well inside the penalty area.
“We can (play better). I know because I saw it in the preseason,” said Urso. “We played so well, we worked hard, so next time we will have to prepare the mind and the body to play well. We have to prepare the mind first to not be nervous, and score the goals. It’s important for us. We have to be cold as ice.”
It’s fairly common for the offense to take a little time to click — especially early in the season — and it can be magnified when more typically precise players like Nani and Dom Dwyer are unavailable. No one on Orlando used the absence of the team’s two biggest scoring threats as an excuse for not finishing on Saturday. The chances were there. The players on the pitch are capable of putting them away. It just comes down to execution.
And if that part comes — and if the team can lock down the middle of the pitch like it did against RSL — this could be the most enjoyable season of Orlando City soccer since the team stepped up to the MLS level.