Orlando City just keeps doing things it has never done before. A week after beating the Chicago Fire at home for the first time ever, the Lions went into Children’s Mercy Park and claimed their first win there with a 2-1 victory over Sporting Kansas City. Tesho Akindele and Benji Michel scored just a couple of minutes apart in the first half and Orlando (7-2-4, 25 points) held on for dear life through a rough second half, conceding a Johnny Russell goal but ultimately holding off SKC (6-5-2, 20 points).
With the win, Orlando climbed to second in the Eastern Conference standings, winning a tiebreaker over Philadelphia on goals scored and another over Toronto on goal differential. The Lions also extended their unbeaten streak to seven games (5-0-2), setting a new club record in the MLS era.
“I’m very proud of the three points,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “I think tonight we beat one of the best teams in the West.”
Pareja’s lineup included some squad rotation in key areas. Pedro Gallese manned the goal as usual, with Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Rodrigo Schlegel, and Ruan slotting in on the back line. Kamal Miller went to the bench while Antonio Carlos was not in the match day squad at all. Andres Perea and Michel stepped into the midfield with Junior Urso and Sebas Mendez, with Chris Mueller and Mauricio Pereyra on the bench, and Nani took up an attacking position with Akindele as Daryl Dike got his first breather since the regular season restarted. Dike was in the match day squad, though.
Sporting Kansas City pushed high up the pitch early and had success turning Orlando over and keeping possession, but without getting any real clear-cut scoring opportunities. The first good chance of the match went to the hosts after Schlegel was booked for a handball when he went down to block a pass on a counter attack and the ball hit his arm. Graham Zusi curled his set piece wide of the left post on the set piece.
Orlando saw almost no possession in the attacking third in the first 20 minutes, but got an opportunity when a through ball found Michel and he was taken down by Matt Besler, setting up a free kick. Nani sent in the set piece to Schlegel, who got under it and headed well over the bar at the near post in the 25th minute.
The Lions started getting more opportunities and more set pieces as the half went on. But it was the counter where Orlando found success. Ruan found himself in space and threaded an excellent through ball for a perfectly timed run by Akindele. Tesho sized up goalkeeper Tim Melia and curled a shot around him and inside the near post to make it 1-0 in the 36th minute.
For Akindele, it was his second league goal of the season. He last scored in a non-MLS is Back knockout stage match back on July 14 against New York City FC during the group stage.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about before the game,” Akindele said about the team attacking SKC’s offside trap. “We have, obviously, a fast lineup out there, especially with me and Benji. We knew that we should be looking for the balls in behind.
“On my goal, I saw Ruan just taking it in. Benji did a good job of making the first run and he kind of brought a defender or two with him. Then I saw the gap open up and Ruan made a great pass. I honestly thought I was offside because I had so much space but then I just relaxed, waited for the spot to open up, and finished it.”
The dust had barely settled from Akindele’s goal when the Lions struck again in transition. Nani sent a gorgeous ball over the top for Michel to run onto. Besler grabbed him and pulled him back, but Michel fought him off and slotted home past Melia in the 38th minute to double the lead. The strike gave Michel his fourth goal in the last five games.
“Benji is very docile to coach,” Pareja said. “He is growing. He is understanding and interpreting much better the spaces.”
“ I think that [Michel’s] thinking about the game more than he was before,” Akindele said. “Benji is at practice before everyone and he’s working on his own and that’s something nobody sees. He’s hitting the gym. He’s passing the ball. He’s doing a lot of work on his own this year, really trying to improve himself as a player. You know, that’s something that nobody sees, he hasn’t been talking about it but it’s happening and I think everybody’s seen the results that right now.”
The end of the first half consisted of several Sporting KC corners that Orlando defended well, and the Lions took their 2-0 lead into the break. Orlando led in shots (4-3), as well as shots on goal (2-0) and possession (53.6%). SKC racked up a 7-1 edge in corner kicks. Both teams were 86% accurate with their passes.
After the break, the Lions did what they have done far too often this year and came out of the locker room with too little energy and passion. SKC no doubt heard an earful from Peter Vermes at halftime and played like it, owning the ball and not giving it up at all. There were more corners and crosses and the hosts finally made it pay off.
A cross to the back post was played too softly by Kyle Smith, who tried to usher it out rather than attacking it and Russell played right through him, out-muscling the Orlando left back and heading home to make it 2-1.
There was no let-up from the hosts, who seemingly possessed the ball for the entire first 15 minutes of the second period. Orlando couldn’t find the handle and when the Lions did get a touch, they’d immediately turn it right back over.
“I think they were just throwing numbers forward,” Akindele said. “Their center backs did well at winning the long balls that we tried to hit out. So, you know, that’s on me and the forwards. I think we could have done a little bit better job of trying to hold the ball up in the second half. That might have eased some pressure.”
After a shot from Russell fizzed wide in the 60th minute, Pareja brought Pereyra into the match to help get more of the ball but it was merely a band-aid and the Lions needed reinforcements from Dike and Mueller to calm things down a bit — but only a bit. Orlando did start to get on the ball more but certainly not as much as they would have liked.
Gadi Kinda fired a couple of shots from distance over the bar in the 67th and 70th minutes and Nani did the same at the end of a good-looking counter-attacking buildup in the 75th.
A minute later, the hosts appeared to tie up the match when a clearance by Jansson hit Russell and bounced behind the beefy Swede. It was picked up by SKC and was sent into the area where it got lost in traffic and trickled over the line, but the play was ruled offside and it was upheld on video review.
Orlando’s best opportunity at an insurance goal came in the 84th, when Urso knocked a ball out of the air to himself and hit it first time, sending a rocket toward goal. We’ll never know if it would have gone in because it hit Mueller in the stomach. A minute later, Dike got the ball and went 1-v-3 against the Sporting defense, freeing himself up for a shot but he sent his effort over the bar.
Gerso sent a laser on target from outside the area in the 86th but Gallese was there to knock it over the bar. Defender Winston Reid got the last good look for SKC in stoppage time with a header off a corner kick but he sent his shot wide and the Lions held on to get the win.
Sporting Kansas City finished with more shots (16-8), but Orlando got more on frame (3-2). SKC had a commanding 13-1 advantage in corners and turned the possession around to hold 56.6% of the ball. The hosts passed at an 83% rate but the Lions faded in the second half to just 77%.
“We were very happy with the three points, and the first half, we played very well,” Jansson said. “The second half is completely Sporting so we are a little bit disappointed on the second half but we came here to get three points and sometimes you need to do it different ways.”
The Lions have one more on the road before returning to Exploria Stadium, with a Sunday night match-up at FC Dallas in Oscar Pareja’s return to his old address. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m.