For the second straight week, an early Orlando City goal was enough to win a 1-0 nailbiter as Tesho Akindele’s early strike lifted the Lions to a 1-0 win over Toronto FC (1-3-2, 5 points) at Exploria Stadium. Pedro Gallese got his fourth shutout of the year and Orlando (3-0-3, 12 points) extended its best-ever MLS unbeaten streak to start the season to six games.
With the win — just Orlando’s third ever against Toronto — the Lions improved to 3-8-2 in the all-time series (3-4-0 at home). It was Orlando City’s first win over Toronto since July 14, 2018.
“Great three points against a very good rival,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “I think today we showed a lot of character. We’re learning how to suffer the moments where the other team is having the better initiative. We could have been more polished to finish but we have to realize that Toronto had some options too and that just highlights the performance of our team defense.”
Without the suspended Nani, and without starting fullbacks Ruan and Joao Moutinho in the lineup, Pareja went with a back line of Rodrigo Schlegel, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Kyle Smith in front of goalkeeper Gallese. Junior Urso and Sebas Mendez patrolled central midfield behind an attacking group of Silvester van der Water — his first MLS start — Mauricio Pereyra, and Chris Mueller, with Akindele up top.
Pareja said that Ruan is getting close to returning but wasn’t quite ready and Moutinho had some soreness this week so they held him out as a precaution.
A cagey start to the game saw the two teams playing between the penalty areas, searching for space against the other team’s pressure. The first good look nearly fell to Toronto but the offside flag came up. Instead, van der Water nearly opened the scoring with a cheeky chip attempt from distance over Alex Bono but the shot was wide of the target in the eighth minute. Four minutes later, the Dutchman set up a goal for someone else.
Taking the ball on the right side, van der Water sent a gorgeous cross into the box where both Urso and Akindele were making unmarked runs. The cross found Akindele, who nodded home his second goal of the season in the 12th minute. It was van der Water’s first assist with Orlando.
“I want always to give that ball with my left foot,” van der Water said of his pass to Akindele. “And this moment, I think, was a good moment in the game. It was a special moment of course and we train a lot about this. I’m really happy with the assist.”
A minute after the goal, van der Water had a go from the top of the area but his shot was blocked.
Toronto started growing in the game and finding some space, mainly down the wings. Yeferson Soteldo and Richie Laryea gave Smith and Schlegel fits. A shot from the top of the area was deflected and Gallese stuck out a foot to make a vital save in the 24th minute after the quick change of direction.
Mueller did well to get down the left side in the 30th minute and picked out a perfect pass to van der Water in the middle but the shot was sent straight at Bono.
Two minutes later, Toronto nearly scored. Soteldo got down the left side and beat the fallen Carlos, then chipped the ball to himself over Gallese before sending a shot toward goal that Jansson blocked. Schlegel cleaned up the loose change.
“I saw in that situation I saw that the ball went behind the back line and Pedro went out so, so I just tried to cover up behind him in case he was doing something like a chip or something to get through Pedro,” Jansson said. “But I feel like we’re trying to just back up each other, wherever on the field, so that’s the way we do it.”
In the 35th minute, Urso lost the ball in midfield but hustled back in time to block a shot from Jozy Altidore.
Toronto sent a shot over the bar from distance off a short corner kick late in stoppage time and the Lions held their 1-0 advantage at halftime.
Toronto had more shots (7-4), with each team getting two on target. The Reds had more corners (3-1), while the Lions held more possession (54.9%-45.1%) and were more accurate in passing (83.5%-78.8%).
Toronto came out on the front foot to start the second half looking to equalize quickly, with Kemar Lawrence firing over the bar and Michael Bradley sending a shot wide in the opening minutes of the second period.
The Lions then settled down a bit and created some chances with Akindele getting clear for a shot but firing wide in the 49th minute and Urso sending a shot off target in the 53rd.
The Reds then began pushing higher and creating some turnovers in the middle of the pitch with quick double-teams that Orlando was slow to play out of.
Still, Orlando didn’t allow many scoring opportunities despite Soteldo and Laryea creating problems on the flanks. Soteldo himself fired 14 crosses into the Orlando area but only five of those found a teammate and none of them could fight through their defender to equalize.
The Lions should have put the game away in the 68th minute. A good ball over the top sprung Akindele behind the defense but Chris Mavinga hustled back and did just enough to body Tesho while he was trying to shoot and the chance fizzled.
Toronto nearly leveled the game in the 71st minute when substitute Jacob Shaffelburg got to the end line with just enough space to thread a seeing-eye shot along the line past Gallese but Schlegel was there to save it off the line.
The game was opened up quite a bit as the Reds threw numbers forward and left gaps for Orlando to get into. Pereyra tried a tight-angle shot from the right in the 72nd minute but Bono was alert to it and made the save. Smith got forward and somehow found himself in the middle of the pitch for a cheeky pass from Urso in the 79th minute. Smith turned and fired but hit the shot at Bono.
Orlando City again should have put the game away in the 84th. Second-half sub Andres Perea sent fellow substitute Benji Michel in behind down the left for an opportunity and the Homegrown Player nearly found a hole. But Bono got enough of it to fight it off for a corner. Carlos got his head on the ensuing corner but hit his shot just inches over the bar.
After those chances, Toronto did everything it could to tie the match but just couldn’t get anything past El Pulpo.
In the 90th minute, Shaffelburg had a lot to shoot at but missed the net after Gallese stopped a shot by Ayo Akinola. As the six minutes of stoppage time wound down, Gallese made two big saves and the Lions cleared a last-gasp Toronto corner kick to claim the three points.
Toronto out-shot Orlando 18-10 (6-5 on target), and had more corners (9-4). The Lions held a slight edge in possession (50.6%-49.4%) and were more accurate passers (81.9%-78.9%).
“I think the boys have done a great job on taking care of the details, especially defending the last third when the other team is throwing a lot of numbers in,” Pareja said. “They’re being very generous with each other and helping each other and covering when it’s needed. We’re happy to see a team with that solidness. We would love to have games where we can play more comfortable.”
“I feel like we have been very mature, and we have developed,” Jansson said. “We are better closing down games in a way, but still today we got a lot of pressure. They found a lot of ways to get shots and create in the attack. So, from this game, I think we need to take with us that we need to keep the ball a little bit better, to rest with it in the second half. So, we need to be a little bit smarter there, but otherwise it’s wonderful to get the three points and the clean sheet again.”
The Lions head out on the road next Saturday for a date with the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. The team will then be off until June 19.