The Orlando City offense continues to struggle, but one goal was enough on a wet night at Exploria Stadium. Benji Michel’s second-half strike off a turnover forced by Tesho Akindele was the difference as Orlando City (9-4-7, 34 points) beat the Chicago Fire (5-11-5, 20 points) 1-0. Mason Stajduhar got his first career MLS shutout.
With the win, the Lions’ unbeaten streak grew to five straight matches (2-0-3) and it snapped a string of three consecutive 1-1 draws. Orlando improved to 4-5-5 in the all-time series against the Fire, and 2-2-3 at home. The Lions leapfrogged idle Nashville to climb back into second place in the Eastern Conference, while the Fire fell to 0-7-1 on the road in 2021.
“Another fantastic performance for the boys, especially for what they are getting through,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “Competing and winning those three points means a lot for the players, for the club, for all.”
Pareja’s lineup included Stajduhar in goal and despite Pedro Gallese making the bench, although it was Adam Grinwis who came out for warmups. Joao Mouthino, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan made up the back line behind a central midfield of Junior Urso and Joey DeZart, as Andres Perea was again missing from the match day roster despite not being listed on the availability report. Michel and Silvester van der Water played the facilitator roles with Nani returning to the starting lineup with Akindele up top. Mauricio Pereyra got the night off.
After an inclement weather delay of about 45 minutes, the teams took to the pitch. The wet ball and constant rain made play a bit sloppy and sluggish at times but both teams had chances.
The first good opportunity came Orlando’s way. Van der Water cut from right to left and hit a shot that crashed off the left post and trickled back across the face of goal but stayed out in the 11th minute.
Chicago’s first good look came on a cross from the right in the 15th minute that Stanislav Ivanov headed wide.
The Lions suffered yet another injury blow at the half-hour mark. Nani signaled to the bench that he couldn’t continue and Chris Mueller subbed on in his place.
Stajduhar made a good save in the 33rd minute on Ivanov, who was Chicago’s most dangerous player in the opening half.
A minute later, Ruan sent in a good cross and Mueller went up and got it but he headed it right at Bobby Shuttleworth.
Akindele got forward after a Chicago corner attempt in the 38th minute and appeared to be pulled down just outside the area. Referee Tim Ford played on and eventually went to the monitor to review it. He determined there was no denial of a goal-scoring opportunity by Mauricio Pineda.
Van der Water was clipped from behind cutting between players in the 45th minute and then took a nasty accidental stomp but there was no foul given. Orlando did get a free kick a few minutes later as van der Water was fouled yet again from behind. The Fire cleared the entry ball, which fell to Jansson but the defender fired his shot just over the bar in stoppage time. Michel then headed over moments later on the last chance of the half.
Chicago had more shot attempts in the half (8-7) and each team got one on target. Chicago had a 2-0 edge in corners taken and was the more accurate passing team (87.3%-84.8%), while Orlando held a slim margin in possession (50.2%-49.8%).
The Lions had a good opportunity just after the restart, with Urso getting his head on a cross from Mueller in the 49th minute but Shuttleworth was there to make the save. But just two minutes later, the Lions broke through.
Akindele pressured and dispossessed Pineda, feeding the ball to Michel. The Homegrown forward stepped up to the top of the area and fired a shot past Shuttleworth just inside the left post to make it 1-0 in the 51st minute. It was Akindele’s career-high fifth assist on the season and Michel’s fourth goal of the 2021 campaign.
“I give all my credit to Tesho,” Michel said. “His work ethic, his relentless running, pressing the center back and be able to nick the ball away from him, pick his pocket, and that just left me through on goal. And I knew this was probably my only chance to score so I knew I had to be clinical and put the ball in the back of the net.”
“Sometimes it’s normal in the game, you see just the ones who score goals or the ones who make the pretty plays here and there,” Pareja said of the play Akindele made to set up the goal. “The value of the tactical movement and the tactical generosity of the players is what refreshes my soul. I can’t leave more content than seeing these guys giving all that they have for the tactical part of the game. This is a game that needs effort, collectively, and that is one of the most beautiful — in my opinion — attitude that the boys can have.”
The Lions looked to add to their lead in the 55th minute when van der Water made a great turn and pass to open up the defense. The ball ended up with Moutinho on the left but he fired his shot wide.
Akindele and van der Water played a good 1-2 pass that ended with the Dutchman firing wide off his weaker right foot as he tried to toe poke it home in the 64th.
Down the stretch it was a series of set pieces and long throws for Chicago but Orlando did just about enough to deal with the crosses and when the Lions couldn’t win the ball in the air, Stajduhar was there to make the play. He made a big stop in the 81st minute on a curler by Robert Beric that looked to be headed inside the far post.
He made another important save in stoppage time off a corner kick that was redirected on goal through traffic, punching it away at the last second.
To help see the game out, Homegrown midfielder Raul Aguilera Jr. made his MLS debut, coming on for DeZart in the 85th minute.
Chicago fired more shots (18-11), got more on target (5-3), earned more corners (11-5), passed more accurately (86.1%-84.3%), and held more possession (54.5%-45.5%) on the night, but the Lions held the advantage in the only statistic that mattered — goals.
“It was a tough game. It was a lot of back and forth there,” DeZart said. “We try to impose ourselves but they were trying to do the same and that’s how it played out but towards the end of the first half and the second half we started to figure it out. And I’m just glad we got the win.”
“Overall I thought our behavior was very good and what we want,” Pareja said. “We created our sequences. We created our chances. We would like to be more precise, as we have been saying, on scoring goals and obviously not suffering that much, but I’m proud of this group.
“A special night for the youngsters in Orlando, where Mason and Raul stood up today and showed their presence and the development of our academy here.”
Orlando City will host Inter Miami next Friday night in its next match, which is just two days after Nani and Pedro Gallese are scheduled to take part in the MLS All-Star Game in Los Angeles.