Orlando City looked like the team below the line and Atlanta appeared to be the conference’s second-place team as the Lions were played completely off the field in a 3-0 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Lions (10-5-8, 38 points) saw their seven-match unbeaten streak snapped by the same Atlanta (7-7-9, 30 points) club that it started against and split the points in the season series, finishing 1-1-1 in the three meetings.
It was a poor night from the Lions in every facet of the game. They didn’t press, defend, pass, attack, or even touch the ball well all night. Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja lost against Atlanta for the first time since taking over the Lions and Gonzalo Pineda won his first game as the Five Stripes’ new coach. George Campbell and Ezequiel Barco scored for Atlanta, sandwiched around a Daryl Dike own goal.
“Very disappointed today. Not just the result but the way that we played,” Pareja said after the game. “I think it’s one of those nights where we couldn’t put our game on the field and Atlanta took advantage of two silly mistakes on those set plays that we had in the first half.”
Pareja’s lineup again featured Adam Grinwis in goal behind a back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Andres Perea started in place of the suspended Junior Urso, beside Joey DeZart in the central midfield. Mauricio Pereyra and Benji Michel were tasked with facilitating the attack in the middle third, with Nani and Dike at the top of the formation.
Despite it being a strong lineup for Orlando, and outside of the central midfield and goalkeeper was more or less a first-choice starting XI, the Lions were never in this one. From the opening minutes, the Lions did little to bother Atlanta or even let the Five Stripes know they were in the game. There was no organization when the Lions pressed, and there were no clear game tactics on display. It was simply an entire game played on the back foot.
Part of the problem was a curious lack of energy by Orlando City, but the midfield was also an issue all night and the forwards’ poor touches and wayward passes didn’t help in those few instances that some semblance of buildup took place. Without Urso or Sebas Mendez, there was no bite in the midfield. Atlanta ran through the Lions in the middle of the pitch with ease, and it wasn’t until Uri Rosell checked in during the game’s later stages that anyone wearing an Atlanta uniform had to turn back with the ball.
“We didn’t look urgent today,” Pareja said. “We were outplayed by intensity, especially in the middle, and then the reactions when the goals came in the first half, they were not natural for us. We were slow to react. The middle of the field looked so big for us. I think we were very spacey.”
Atlanta dominated the opening 45 minutes and it always seemed like a matter of when the hosts would score and how many. Luiz Araujo couldn’t capitalize on a couple of early chances. He hit the left post from the right side in the fourth minute, sending a curling shot off the woodwork after the Lions failed to get anywhere near closing him down from just outside the area.
Five minutes later, Grinwis made a diving save to deny Marcelino Moreno from outside the area when he too was given space. In the 12th minute, it was Araujo again failing to capitalize on a good opportunity, sending a shot just wide of the right post.
During all of these Atlanta chances, the hosts were comfortable in possession as the Lions struggled to even gain possession, let alone string passes together. Orlando hardly crossed the midfield stripe in the opening 20 minutes.
Orlando’s first opportunity came in the 17th minute when Dike was fouled by Alan Franco just outside the area but Nani’s free kick smacked off the wall and skipped out for a throw.
The first dangerous shot by the Lions came in the 20th minute. Moutinho did well to cut inside and find Michel on the left side. Michel fired with his left foot toward the far post but the shot stayed high and sailed just over the bar.
Five minutes later, the hosts scored. Atlanta played a corner kick short, and the Lions kind of milled around as spectators as Moreno was given acres of space to send a cross into the box. Nobody seemed interested in reacting to the cross except Campbell, who headed off the fake grass and past Grinwis to open the scoring.
Atlanta scored off another set piece in the 34th minute. Carlos committed a foul and drew a yellow card just outside the area to Grinwis’ right. Ezequiel Barco sent in a cross that bounced off Nani, hit Dike, then deflected in for an own goal. It was the second Orlando City own goal in the last two matches.
With a little help from our friendly neighbors pic.twitter.com/dFQR42IiFA— Atlanta United FC (@ATLUTD) September 11, 2021
“Tactically they were better than us,” Pereyra said. “They played without a center forward and they’ve got many people with quality in the half pitch. We didn’t know how to accommodate in the pressing that we’d been working on in the week and it’s something that we need to grow now because we should adapt in the game.”
The only potential opportunities Orlando had to break in transition were both broken up by Atlanta defenders. Franco and Campbell were each booked for taking down Michel on the counter. The first would have been a 2-v-1 with Dike but Franco was likely in position to thwart the second, when Campbell drew a yellow for his foul.
It was a deserved lead at the half for the hosts and they honestly didn’t need to work that hard for it. The Lions just seemed flat, bereft of ideas, and both their touch and passing was poor throughout the opening half.
Atlanta United dominated the opening half statistically as it did on the scoreboard, leading in shots (7-3), shots on goal (2-0), possession (63.3%-36.7%), and passing accuracy (90.2%-79%), with each team earning one corner kick.
Any hope that things would change in the second half were quickly dashed. The Lions, trailing by two and needing to show some kind of urgency, failed to register a shot attempt until a weak effort from distance right at Brad Guzan from Perea in the 62nd minute. So, it took 17 minutes to even get an attempt.
In that 17 minutes, Moreno had three chances, sending one well over the bar, hitting a free kick wide, and then hitting a shot just wide after a Michel turnover. Barco also fired just over the net in transition after a Pereyra turnover.
Nani fired a shot from distance in the 71st minute but didn’t get the placement he wanted and it ended up comfortable for Guzan on only the second Orlando shot on target.
Barco put the game away a minute later. Brooks Lennon sent a ball over the top that found Barco, who moved to his right around Ruan, avoided a tackle attempt from Carlos, then beat Grinwis to make it 3-0 in the 72nd minute.
Pareja made some substitutions, including sending Tesho Akindele on for his 200th career MLS appearance, but nothing really changed. Grinwis made two huge stops late on Lennon and George Bello to keep it at 3-0 but the Lions couldn’t threaten Guzan.
Atlanta finished with a whopping 18-8 advantage in shots (5-2 on target), more possession (55.1%-44.9%), more corners (4-3), and a higher passing percentage (87.8%-82.7%). It was simply a terrible game for Orlando and perhaps behind only the trip to play New York City FC that preceded the seven-game unbeaten streak.
“We have to accept it, we have to move on, and the boys will be prepared for the next game,” Pareja said.
The Lions return home for a midweek match-up against Montreal at Exploria Stadium on Wednesday night.