Orlando City struck first in Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw vs. Montreal but couldn’t close the deal, splitting the points in a crucial Eastern Conference playoff race match. The Lions could end up regretting not taking all three points at home with two games left at Exploria Stadium — against the top two teams in the conference — along with trips to Columbus and Montreal down the stretch. Other results from the midweek games prevented the dropped points from being as costly as they could have been, but that was also a missed opportunity to improve positioning by leaping Philadelphia.
What did we learn from a frustrating result on a night the Lions perhaps deserved more?
Close, But No Cigar
If there’s one phrase that sums up Orlando City’s offense against Montreal Wednesday night it’s the one in the subhead above. The Lions were so close to scoring a number of times, especially in the first half, but couldn’t quite knock the door down until Chris Mueller’s goal in the 45th minute. One goal against Montreal wasn’t enough like it was Saturday night in Cincinnati. Some of the credit for that has to go to the visitors, who blocked or deflected several Orlando shots. One of those deflections cost Junior Urso a goal as the shot smacked off the crossbar. Another cost Ruan a potential winning goal. Ruan had to go for that loose ball in the box although had he left it, Nani was lurking with a head of steam (and a much better eye for goal). Daryl Dike headed a Benji Michel cross just over the crossbar in the first half and Mauricio Pereyra found space at the top of the box but guided his shot just left of the goal. Orlando has struggled to finish in games throughout the season and that lack of sharpness costs points in games like this.
As the clock wound down after Montreal equalized, the visitors were only too happy to accept their point and stay patient in case an opportunity came to break in transition for a winner. Montreal’s five-man back line and tightly compacted lines took away space and forced Orlando to be perfect to play through during the closing minutes, and the Lions couldn’t be perfect. Again, you have to credit the other side sometimes. Montreal has come to Orlando twice and played two solid matches, taking four of a possible six points out of Exploria Stadium. The Lions had their chances earlier in the game to prevent the bunker from being a problem late, when legs were heavy. By not finishing, it allowed Montreal to go into its shell to preserve a needed road point.
Papi Went for It
Anyone who says Orlando City was happy with a draw last night will have to fight me. Oscar Pareja wanted those three points and his substitutions showed that. Pareja brought on Nani, Alexandre Pato, Tesho Akindele, and Silvester van der Water in an effort to put fresh legs on the pitch to go for the win. While it didn’t work out, putting those particular players out there against a defense that had been forced to work hard for much of the game was a sound strategy. Nani could have had another iconic, game-winning moment if he’d been able to get Ruan to leave him that juicy rebound of the Dike effort in the 76th minute.
One Foot Won’t Work
With the way Mueller has struggled offensively throughout the season, some people have been calling for more of van der Water in the starting lineup. The Dutchman has shown some flashes of brilliance and a magical left foot at times in 2021 and looks to have a solid future in the game. But teams have seen him on film and there’s an obvious flaw in his game. Van der Water is a one-footed player. He’s not the only one. As a Manchester United fan, I used to become frustrated with Antonio Valencia at right back because when teams overplayed his strong foot, he was largely useless and didn’t know what to do, so he’d pass back and reset the whole attack rather than cut in on his weaker foot — often when numbers were advantageous to do so. Former Lion Mohamed El-Munir was mainly a one-footed left back in his time in Orlando.
On Wednesday, van der Water’s introduction made the Lions easier to defend on the right. Mueller could go either direction and was unpredictable. But van der Water wouldn’t go right. Kamal Miller knew this and overplayed him to his left side. Often this forced van der Water to play negative balls backward to reset the attack, but sometimes the Dutchman simply forced something on his left foot and conceded possession as a result. Other teams will do this, so he’s going to have to start using his right foot more or swap sides so he can get into wide areas and play balls in for his teammates.
It had been a long wait for a Mueller goal. Last year’s most dangerous Lion has had a rocky 2021 season and only last night did he equal his career-low season in goals, scoring his third to match his rookie year of 2018. It was great to see him get the monkey off his back and he scored what should have been a morale-boosting goal heading into halftime. That’s not the way it ultimately played out but Mueller goals are a critical piece of the offense that the team has been missing in 2021, so hopefully that was the start of a hot streak for the Money Badger.
Mueller now has three goals and five assists in 2021 after piling up 10 goals and seven assists in four fewer games a year ago. It became clear in last night’s postgame press conference that this has been a difficult season for Mueller, who sounded like he’d rather be in Scotland with his new team and is only here because the Lions couldn’t work out a deal with the SPL side to their liking to release him early.
“I can’t imagine that you are aware of what’s been going on with me, obviously, in my situation with the club, so ultimately I think that makes things a bit more difficult,” Mueller told the media. “But, nonetheless, I’ve just continued to push myself every day and continue to try and be positive and be happy where I can help the team, and just jump in and support my teammates, be there for my teammates, be there for myself, learn a lot about myself through what’s been, like I said, a tough process for me to handle everything that’s been going on.”
Mueller has been one of the most memorable and hard-working players Orlando City has had since joining MLS and his time with the club is almost over. He’s a popular player and the fans will miss him. It’s tough to see a second fan favorite — and yes, Cyle Larin was a fan favorite until the manner of his exit soured part of the fan base on him — in a situation with Orlando City that clearly isn’t making him happy. The front office must do a better job of being a player-friendly organization. While the club shouldn’t just give away top assets for nothing, it also shouldn’t have come to that. Unhappy players don’t play their best and we’ve seen a perfect example of that this year.
We’ll see if Mueller can put aside his off-the-field feelings about his exit in the team’s final playoff push and end on a hot streak.
That’s what I saw on Wednesday night. What stood out to you? Let us know in the comments.