Mauricio Pereyra’s goal just seven minutes into the match propelled Orlando City to a 1-0 win over D.C. United at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. The Lions (2-0-3, 9 points) are unbeaten in five matches to start the season, which is the team’s best run since joining MLS. It was also just the team’s second road win over D.C. United (2-4-0, 6 points) and first at Audi Field.
Orlando City is now 5-6-1 in the all-time series against D.C. in league play and 5-6-2 in all competitions. On the road, the Lions improved to 2-4-0 on the road against United in league games and 2-4-1 in all competitions. It wasn’t pretty, but the Lions were able to grind out a game in which they were under pressure much of the night.
“I’m very happy, very proud about the effort of the players,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “I think today we needed much more than football, and the boys did it. They defended well.”
Pareja made a couple changes to the lineup in front of goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. Ruan didn’t make the lineup after picking up a knock last Saturday. Despite assurances that he was available in Friday’s press conference, he made the trip and was seen with an ice pack on his leg on the broadcast. Kyle Smith switched to his natural right side and Joao Moutinho started on the left side of center backs Antonio Carlos and Rodrigo Schlegel. Junior Urso and Sebas Mendez manned the central midfield, with Benji Michel taking Chris Mueller’s spot in the starting XI on the right and Pereyra pulling the midfield strings, as usual. Nani and Tesho Akindele were the attacking force again.
Orlando got a chance early with Nani heading wide on a cross from the right. Then D.C. was able to ugly up the game for a bit.
The Lions then decided to go route 1 to play over the press and it paid off in the opening goal. Smith sent a long ball forward for Pereyra and the Uruguayan chested it down to Akindele. Tesho gave it back to Pereyra, who fought off a defender and fired past Jon Kempin for the opener in the seventh minute.
Pereyra celebrated afterwards by pulling up his jersey to reveal a t-shirt with a photo of a close friend he lost this past February. He had been waiting to honor Santiago García with a goal and the moment was a bittersweet one for him.
“It was a happy and a difficult moment for me,” he said. “I was really waiting for this moment because I lost a really good friend in February. He was soccer player and we grew up together. We played together since like we were 10-11 years old and then we played in Nacional and we were champions there. So, I have a lot of moments with him and the honor was for him.”
Just moments after what turned out to be the game’s only goal, United nearly pulled it right back. D.C. worked the ball in through the defense to Adrien Perez, but Gallese got there first. The ball got through and was cleared off the line by the defense but Perez had fouled Gallese anyway on the shot attempt.
D.C. started throwing more numbers forward and pressing higher all across the pitch, with the forwards pressuring Schlegel and Carlos and the wingbacks pinching up to press the fullbacks. This forced the Lions to have to be quick, decisive, and accurate with their passes out of the back and they just weren’t on this night. Even a ball only slightly off line was quickly taken away from its intended target.
Gallese made a leaping stop on a headed ball by Drew Skundrich in the 21st minute as the hosts kept attacking, but it wasn’t ruled a save.
Orlando did fashion a few opportunities to double the lead. One of those came in the 22nd minute when Nani shook free on the left side of the box but fired over the net.
D.C. came right back down the pitch and forced a good Gallese save — his only one of the match — on an Edison Flores shot that was smashed toward the near post in the 23rd minute. Seconds later, Perez fired a volley shot over the bar. D.C. quickly regained possession on the ensuing goal kick and Perez’s shot was deflected out for a corner.
Nani fired just over the bar in the 31st minute off a well-worked short corner and I can’t believe I’m typing the phrase “well-worked short corner,” because for years the Lions have made an absolute mess of those plays.
D.C.’s most dangerous chance came off an Orlando set piece. The Lions worked a free kick to the right but Smith’s cross in was short and D.C. quickly cleared and countered with speed. Moutinho ended up with a vital blocked shot on a Paul Arriola attempt to prevent a goal.
As the half wound down, it looked like only a matter of time before Orlando unlocked D.C. with a counter attack. Michel’s heavy touch, however, spoiled two such chances. Just a couple moments from halftime Michel got to a deflected cross first and turned toward goal but let the ball run too far out in front of him and the defense closed and cleared. Then in first-half stoppage time, Michel was in the clear and about to be behind the defense when he took a touch so heavy the ball ran about 25 yards out in front of him and went out harmlessly for a goal kick.
D.C. out-shot Orlando City 6-4 in the first half, with each getting one shot on target. The hosts also led in corners (4-2). The Lions held more possession (53.6%-46.4%).
“I think in the first half we were able to find our spaces and still play our game,” Moutinho said. “But then in the second half they made it harder for us. I think we were also a little bit tired. But yeah, we stayed together. Didn’t concede that that many chances.”
Out of the break, Arriola nearly equalized for D.C., sending a shot from the right just inches wide of the left post. That was a warning of things to come as Orlando City white-knuckled its way through the second 45 minutes.
Just 11 minutes after the restart Pareja subbed Michel off for Robin Jansson, who made his season debut. The Beefy Swede’s introduction was part of a tactical change that Pareja said was designed to ease the pressure from D.C.’s two pressing forwards and to give some help to Moutinho, who was thrust into a full 90-minute shift for the first time since last summer.
“Joao is coming from a long period with no activity. We didn’t have Ruan neither today. It just gave me a feeling that we were going to need help in the back,” Pareja said. “Because Flores and Perez were very active in the first half. And Antonio and Rodrigo were coming man-to-man with them, and they have ability. So I wanted to add one more player there.
“I did not do it when the half ended, because I wanted to wait at least 10 minutes to see if we could have a couple more rushes from Benji. But when they brought (Julian) Gressel fresh (on Moutinho’s side), we decided just to make the sub and bring in Robin. I thought it was a move that helped us a lot to conquer the three points. They looked stronger. Joao needed help and then they looked more solid.”
It was Moutinho’s foul that set up an opportunity for D.C., but Fredric Brillant headed wide on a near-post header. It looked like Gallese had that post covered anyway.
Moments later, Nani sent a shot on the left side into the side netting from a tight angle.
Still, the hosts kept the pressure on for almost the entire second half, turning the possession advantage in their favor. Despite their possession advantage and an inordinate number of free kicks and corner kicks, the Lions didn’t allow many shot opportunities, and even fewer in good positions.
Perhaps the most dangerous chance came on a free kick in the 72nd minute when a curving, in-swinging cross short-hopped in front of Gallese, but El Pulpo managed to fight it off into the air and then catch it before a D.C. attacker could arrive.
The Lions were able to battle through all of the set pieces and see the game out in the end, capturing that elusive second win of the season and the first on the road.
D.C. ended up with more possession (55%-45%), and more shots (13-6), but neither team put a shot on frame in the second 45 minutes. United also had far more corners (10-2) and was slightly better in passing on a night when neither team really shone in that area (74.7%-72.8%).
Gallese kept his third clean sheet of the season and his sixth as a Lion, moving past Tally Hall into third place behind Joe Bendik (13) and Brian Rowe (8).
“Today the maturity of the team is strong,” Pareja said. “I think we’re getting better defensively. We’re stronger. Offensively we need to get better too.”
“Since the first day that (Pareja) came in, he really taught us that defensive-minded side of the game,” Moutinho said. “He always reinforces that idea, that first we have to defend well, not concede goals, and then, going forward, the things will appear. So I think that the defensive consistency is one of our main focuses. And I think that’s been showing.”
Pareja mentioned the same-day travel taking its toll on the team and said he’d rather have played a mid-week game like D.C. did and have a normal travel schedule than fly on game day.
“This morning we flew two hours and a half, and then we came to the hotel and we ate. And then we have to come to the stadium,” he said. “So that was, for me, more challenging than others. Today was difficult and that’s why I respect their performance today.”
“Those are the conditions and we didn’t complain and this is a good thing that this team has,” Pereyra said. “Nobody’s complaining. Nobody’s looking at these small things. And now we are having a really good moment. We are happy with the winning. And I think we deserved the win.”
The Lions return home Saturday night when Toronto FC “visits” Exploria Stadium. The Reds have been training and playing in Orlando so they won’t have far to go.