The Lions headed up to New Jersey to face a Red Bulls team that generally protects its home grounds and, despite playing poorly, Orlando City had a chance to escape with a late draw. Unfortunately, shots don’t always go where you want them to and the Lions fell 2-1 to New York.
It was Orlando City’s 200th MLS regular-season game but it was one to ultimately forget. The Lions were forced to wear the PRIMEBLUE Parley kits that made them look like FC Cincinnati, and...well, they played like FC Cincinnati, to be honest.
Here are the things I took away from Orlando’s first L of 2021:
If you keep taking players off a good team, it eventually catches up. Ruan’s continued absence and a personal matter Rodrigo Schlegel had to attend to forced Michael Halliday into the starting lineup for the first time on Saturday. While Halliday wasn’t terrible, he did turn the ball over in dangerous spots and was culpable on New York’s opening goal. If he’s not going to continue tracking Caden Clark there, he absolutely must make sure to communicate that a teammate has to pick him up. It did not appear Antonio Carlos knew much about Clark until the ball was in the net.
Up front, the second game of Nani’s ridiculous two-game suspension was obviously an issue. The midfield lacked composure on the ball and passes were off line just enough to force bad touches or simply turn the ball over on numerous occasions. Oscar Pareja said Mauricio Pereyra had experienced some tightness during the week and gave him 45 minutes anyway, but it was clearly not the normal Magic Mo out there.
It’s been painful watching Chris Mueller struggle in 2021 after his outstanding 2020 campaign. Mueller was deployed on the left again during the second match of Nani’s suspension and he just doesn’t look comfortable there at all. He’s still working his tail off but generally isn’t providing the expected width, he’s not generating consistent danger, and he’s been too passive at times. He had an opportunity to fire a quick shot in the box Saturday afternoon but instead tried to dribble past two defenders and was dispossessed.
But it isn’t just when he’s on the left. Silvester van der Water sent him on his way on the break just right of center and a heavy touch forced Mueller to re-gather the ball and by that time the defense had gotten into position to block his shot attempt. He’s not beating defenders 1-v-1, he’s passing backward a lot to restart attacking sequences, and he’s opting not to shoot when he’s got room to do so. The Lions need Mueller to get his swagger back and it might only take one shot going in to do it.
Flawed Strategy at the Start
Pareja said in his postgame press conference that the coaching staff picked a lineup and strategy expecting Orlando’s midfield to boss New York’s. That’s certainly not the way the game unfolded. The Lions were on their heels the entire first half and for stretches of the second half. Orlando struggled to break lines with poorly placed or weighted passes and every time the Lions turned it over, the Red Bulls looked threatening. Orlando changed tactics at halftime but the game was already 1-0 at that point, due mostly to one of those turnovers in transition. Instead of looking for a shot on goal, the Lions were picking a goal conceded out of their net because of a poor connection on the counter. Sebas Mendez had a shockingly poor game by his standards in terms of being loose with the ball and Andres Perea didn’t add much to the attack or to keeping possession.
The Lions’ turnovers were caused by numerous factors. Sometimes it was a misplaced pass, just a bit too far ahead or behind. Sometimes those passes were accurate but telegraphed. Often players in the middle of the pitch underestimated how much time and/or space they had before defenders closed and they kept the ball too long. Sometimes touches were simply too heavy and that little extra space between player and ball allowed the defender to close and poke the ball away.
Water Under the Bridge
Silvester van der Water has most certainly earned more minutes with his last two outings, tallying a goal and an assist. His 88th-minute miss on Saturday was a bad one, certainly, but without his goal four minutes earlier, the team’s not even in the match. After the match, van der Water seemed more concerned with the missed shot than the goal, which is the way you’d want your players to react, provided he puts the miss behind him and continues to be a dangerous attacking player.
The Dutchman provided an excellent ball to spring Mueller shortly coming on but Cash couldn’t control it on a day when it seemed like every bounce went the wrong way. So, it could have become a two-goal, one-assist outing in less than half an hour if things had gone more smoothly. I’ve seen enough that my conclusion is there’s just no excuse at this point not to start him every game until/unless Mueller starts producing at last year’s pace again.
There’s still a lot of blamethrowing going on when it comes to Tesho Akindele. I’m here to tell you that he’s not the problem with the offense at the moment. Even when not scoring, Akindele is finding ways to contribute both offensively and defensively. Saturday he listened to what Pareja has been drilling into him and selected the best options in the attack. He had two excellent layoffs for van der Water and should have had a two-assist game as his reward. He made an excellent run in the first half on a give-and-go with Junior Urso, but was forced onto his weaker foot before firing a shot on target. Akindele is more or less the team’s third-choice striker without Daryl Dike and Alexandre Pato, but he’s forged some good early chemistry with van der Water and does so many little things well that don’t show up on the score sheet, such as frequently forcing the opposing goalkeeper to turn the ball over.
Akindele has four direct goal contributions (two goals, two assists) in seven appearances after having just three (all goals) in 17 matches all of last year. He’s registered all four of those goal contributions in the past five games, including the last three straight. His next start will equal his total of starts from last season, his next shot attempt will equal his 12 from all of last season, and his next shot on target will equal the seven he had all of last year too. He’s not a prolific guy, but he’s stepped up his game in 2021. Unfortunately, some other guys have taken a step backward. If the surrounding pieces were clicking the way they had previously been, Akindele would find himself isolated less of the time and might even have better numbers to show for his work.
That’s the way I saw things during Saturday’s match. What did you see? Let me know in the comments section.