It’s good to be back. While an Orlando City victory was the ideal outcome on opening day, it wasn’t to be as the Lions settled for a 0-0 draw with Atlanta United. Orlando remained undefeated on opening day, with its sixth draw in seven attempts, keeping things nothing if not consistent. What follows are my five thoughts from the match.
First Game Rustiness
One of the things that was particularly evident from both teams was the fact that the season is just beginning. The first half saw Orlando in particular struggle with some of the more intricate parts of the game. Atlanta’s intense high press out of the gate made things a bit more difficult, but once Orlando adjusted, it didn’t cause the Lions too many problems. There were multiple times though when a poor touch or misplayed pass derailed a promising stretch of play, and Junior Urso’s skied shot in the 25th minute was a good example of the team’s overall lack of sharpness. However, some of that is to be expected during the team’s first competitive game, and I expect to see less of it in the coming weeks.
Akindele Experiment Yields Mixed Results
Oscar Pareja had a surprising wrinkle in his 4-2-3-1 lineup, choosing to deploy Tesho Akindele as one of his three attacking midfielders with Alexandre Pato starting at striker. The Akindele experiment wasn’t necessarily an effective one unfortunately. While he did a pretty good job of holding up play, the Lions were simply missing another true midfielder and Papi seemed to realize this when he brought on Andres Perea for the Canadian at half-time. Things were much more balanced and fluid in the offensive third following the youngster’s introduction, and I don’t think we’ll be seeing a ton of Tesho in that role this season. To be fair, Atlanta played an excellent game defensively, but he’s also simply better when operating at striker.
Pereyra and Rosell’s Absences Felt
The reason for Tesho’s inclusion in the midfield was the absence of Mauricio Pereyra due to the red card he received in the quarterfinals of the MLS Cup playoffs last year. As to be expected, the Lions suffered in the final third because of it. No one else on the team has yet shown themselves capable of unlocking defenses in the manner that the little Uruguayan can, and with as well as Atlanta was defensively on the day, OCSC desperately needed a couple of the moments of magic that Pereyra can provide. Uri Rosell’s absence was felt too. He provides an air of calmness and reliability to the spine of Orlando’s midfield, and would have been very useful during the opening spells of both halves when Atlanta was pressing so intensely. The team also missed his ability to pick out long passes to bypass the midfield. Hopefully his lower body injury clears up sooner rather than later, because he is a very valuable player for this Orlando team.
Subs Bring a Spark
The good news is that Pareja’s subs were pretty effective. As mentioned earlier, Perea made a positive impact upon entering the game at halftime. He actually flashed an offensive side of his game that we haven’t really seen too much of yet. He needs more time playing in the sort of role he was asked to today, but if he builds on what he showed in his first 45 minutes of the season, then Papi’s lineup options might really start to open up. Benji Michel and Silvester van der Water also used their time on the field to good effect, with Benji in particular providing some much-needed energy and drive as the two teams started to fatigue. I’m looking forward to seeing what Benji can do in his third year in purple and today was a nice reminder that Orlando’s attacking options are among the most numerous in the league.
Chemistry Takes Time
Perhaps my most important takeaway from the game was this one. It takes time for teams to build chemistry with newcomers, and that was evidenced by Pato in this game. The Brazilian had himself a nice little game and was desperately unlucky to not score what probably would have been a winning goal. However, there were times when he and his fellow teammates didn’t quite seem to be on the same page, especially when it came to connecting on that last key pass. That familiarity will come with time though, and I think it’s a very good sign that even on a day where things weren’t quite clicking at 100%, the new man still almost managed to bag a goal. Hopefully the injury that forced him off isn’t too serious and he can keep developing a rapport with his new teammates.
All things considered, I’m fairly content with a draw. Orlando was without Pereyra, Rosell, and Joao Moutinho — three pretty massive absences. I think the team showed good defensive solidity and enough flashes in the attacking third to have a solid foundation to build on. Let me know what you guys think down in the comments.