Orlando City’s first foray into international competition could have gone better. The Lions nearly scored in the game’s opening seconds, then wasted numerous opportunities before falling 1-0 to Santos Laguna at Exploria Stadium in the Leagues Cup quarterfinals. Santos advances to play the Seattle Sounders in the semifinals.
The Lions struggled with their touch and passing accuracy all over the pitch, but especially in the midfield and attacking third and managed to get only two shots on frame on 13 attempts.
“Obviously frustrated with with the result, but not with the way the boys played today and the team, I think they showed a lot of personality tonight,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “Especially in the first half, where we created those options and we could have walked out of the game with a different result.”
Pareja started pretty much a full-strength lineup (minus a few injured players), with Mason Stajduhar in goal behind a first-team back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Junior Urso and Andres Perea patrolled the central midfield, with Mauricio Pereyra and Chris Mueller facilitating the attack to Nani and Tesho Akindele.
The Lions nearly scored in the opening seconds, getting the ball down the left before Pereyra cut a pass back across the box. It was a bit of a stretch for Mueller to get on it but he was able to direct a shot on target that eluded goalkeeper Gibran Lajud but was cleared off the line by Ronaldo Prieto, sliding across the front of goal.
@OrlandoCitySC coming so close to a quick opening goal ⚡— Leagues Cup (@LeaguesCup) August 12, 2021
Orlando City arrancó a todo vapor y estuvo cerca de abrir el marcador. ⚡#LeaguesCup pic.twitter.com/gQissyjiwp
“If (Mueller) put the ball in there, I believe that would have been a very different game,” Carlos said.
Nani fired over the bar two minutes later after a good pass from Mueller.
The visitors got their first chance in the fifth minute on a shot from Prieto that was partially blocked by the defense and easily scooped up by Stajduhar. A minute later, however, Urso made a bad back pass that was picked off by Juan Ferney Otero at the top of the area but Stajduhar made a good save.
Nani fizzed a shot just over the bar in the 10th minute off a well-worked short corner as the Lions continued to look dangerous early. Urso tried a long-range effort four minutes later but his shot skipped about five yards wide of the left post.
Orlando nearly got caught on the counter in the 21st minute when Jansson made a run forward into the area before the play broke down. Santos had a 3-on-2 break but Prieto fired off target from just outside the area.
So close from Ronaldo Prieto for @ClubSantosEn— Leagues Cup (@LeaguesCup) August 12, 2021
¡Muy cerca Ronaldo Prieto para @ClubSantos#LeaguesCup pic.twitter.com/hJUFLwkTZO
After a couple of set pieces for Santos didn’t amount to much, the Lions got another good opportunity, working the ball to the left side in the 28th minute. Moutinho’s cross found an open Ruan on the right but the fullback’s header was off target.
It was a costly miss, because two minutes later, the visitors opened the scoring.
Winning the ball in the middle of the pitch, a player knocked Antonio Carlos to the ground, but referee Selvin Brown allowed play to continue and Santos Laguna took advantage.
In the build-up to Santos' goal, Antonio Carlos was kneed in the back of the head by Jordan Carillo. Carlos and Junior Urso were arguing with the ref about it after the goal was scored. #OrlandoCity pic.twitter.com/0wHBsK9eSl— Austin David (@AustinDavid22) August 12, 2021
Diego Valdes sent the ball left to Otero, who cut inside and took a shot that skipped a few yards in front of Stajduhar. The bounce, and the spin on the ball, made the shot tough to handle for the young keeper. Stajduhar got a hand to it but couldn’t keep Otero’s shot out and Santos took the lead at the 30-minute mark.
August 12, 2021
Orlando tried to pull it right back. Ruan sent a cross from right to left in the 34th that Akindele got a foot to, sending it back toward the right post, but it floated just high, skipping off the top of the crossbar.
That was the last decent chance of the half and the visitors took their 1-0 lead into the break. Shots were even at 8-8 but Santos got more on target (3-1). Orlando held more possession (52.1%-47.9%), while Santos won more corners (2-1) and passed more accurately (79.4%-78.6%).
“I thought, especially the first couple minutes we had two really good chances. Chris had a good one, Luis (Nani) had a good one,” Akindele said. “And then after that, we just couldn’t break them down too much. I thought we did well at building out. Our midfielders brought us up into the middle third, and then the final third, but we were just unable to find that final pass sometimes tonight, and I don’t think we created enough shots on target that we would expect from ourselves with the quality that we have.”
The second half was an uphill battle. Santos played more defensively after the goal and that continued in the second half, with the visitors dropping their midfielders to take away space. Orlando was able to get into decent positions but either couldn’t get the final ball right or got swarmed trying to find the next pass. Often the play was too deliberate and the team rarely moved the ball with the one-touch passing that it has used so effectively at times over the past two seasons.
“There (were) some moments in the sequence where the connection needed to be faster,” Pareja said. “We needed to move the ball faster in order to get an advance, or a numerical superiority, and having the numerical superiority in the last third when you play faster, it gives you a better option. We did create those. Not in the volume that we used to have against other teams. Give the credit to Santos. They have good defenders and they recovered or retrieved it fast. But we could have finished those sequences in a better speed, and probably that would open a better option for us.”
Pereyra tried his luck from outside the area in the 48th minute but the shot was deflected out for a corner by the defense. Nani tried a long-range effort in the 64th minute but Lajud fought it off on what turned out to be the final shot on target of the night by Orlando.
@luisnani with a rocket -- great save by Lajud— Leagues Cup (@LeaguesCup) August 13, 2021
¡Nani suelta un cañonazo y Lajud salva a los laguneros! #LeaguesCup pic.twitter.com/zRfpyuvOCh
The Lions won a number of corner kicks, getting six in the second half after earning only one in the opening 45 minutes. However, they never really created anything off of them.
Substitute Silvester van der Water freed himself up for a shot just outside the area in the 81st minute but his blast sailed just over the bar. That was the last decent chance for either side in the second half. Santos didn’t do much with their second-half chances on the counter, sending four of the team’s five shot attempts well off target.
A visibly angry and frustrated Urso was shown a straight red card at the end of the match for screaming at the referee.
Both teams finished with 13 shots, with Santos getting more on target (4-2). The Lions had more corners (7-6), more possession (53.2%-46.8%), and slightly better passing accuracy (80.7%-79.8%), but just didn’t have any ruthlessness in the final third.
As well organized as Santos is defensively, it was always an uphill battle after falling behind in the first half.
“I thought we played pretty well overall, and maybe we just needed to score a goal early in the game when we kind of had the momentum with us,” Akindele said.
“I think it’s a game that is going to make us grow,” Pareja said.
The Lions return to league play next Wednesday, Aug. 18 when they travel to Tennessee to take on Nashville SC.