Orlando City drew the toughest possible opponent out of the three in the team’s draw for the fourth round of the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Rather than facing USL League One side South Georgia Tormenta or 13th-place Eastern Conference foe Inter Miami, the Lions had to face Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia. No matter. The Lions took care of business at home with a 2-1 victory over the Union at Exploria Stadium Tuesday night.
Goals by Ercan Kara and Andres Perea in the second half lifted Orlando to a 2-0 lead. The Union pulled one back late off a second ball in on a set piece but otherwise Orlando City took care of business to advance to the Round of 16.
Here are the things that stood out to me in the match:
Caution: Bear Active in Area
Junior Urso was asked to play as a winger when Orlando was in possession and to be his usual hard-working self when the Union had the ball. Oscar Pareja praised his veteran Brazilian midfielder after the match, saying he had a “phenomenal game.” The Bear was definitely not hibernating in this match. He was one of the game’s most active participants. Urso led Orlando City with half of the team’s 12 shot attempts, putting two on target. His teammates combined to get only three other shots on target, but at least two of those were goals. Urso led the team in passing rate (92%), got into the box, and pressured the Union throughout the match, and he also tracked back well, won balls back in the midfield, earned fouls to relieve pressure (five of them!), and did all the little things we’ve come to expect from him.
Mixed Night for Mikey
Michael Halliday finally got some first-team minutes with the start at right back against the Union. The Homegrown defender had some injury issues early in the season and, aside from some minutes with OCB, he hadn’t seen the pitch much in competitive action in 2022. Halliday’s night was, well, frankly brutal at times, but that’s what rust and comparative inexperience looks like. Halliday had some miscommunication and poor passing issues, particularly in the first half, a few poor crosses in the attacking third, and two absolutely brutal first touches that cost the Lions potential scoring opportunities. However, it wasn’t all bad for the Homegrown Player. The teenager had a vital defensive intercession in the first half to prevent a 1-v-1 opportunity for Philadelphia. And he grew into the match as the game progressed. While it would have been completely justified for Pareja to sub the 19-year-old off at halftime, Halliday played better in the second period and he showed glimpses of the kind of player the Orlando City technical staff believe he could become. He created two scoring chances, which trailed only Facundo Torres on the team. Halliday may not be ready to step into regular-season matches just yet but he may have earned another Open Cup start with his second half and kudos to Pareja, because — and I’m speaking from experience here — it’s not always easy to be patient with a teenager.
It was another standout performance from 20-year-old central midfielder César Nahuel Araújo Vilches, just days after his 21st birthday. The Uruguayan turned in another workmanlike effort, shielding his back line and goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar. He deftly won balls and put out fires. Like Urso, he drew five fouls on the Union. He won a team-high four tackles and passed at a solid 84.9% rate, which was fifth on the team among starters — third among those not on the back line. Araújo has made a solid case for being the team’s most valuable player thus far on the season.
Three Key Defensive Plays Saved the Day
Tuesday night’s win could have gone very differently if not for three massive defensive plays that Orlando City absolutely had to get right — and did. I’ve already mentioned one of those above, which was Halliday getting back in the first half on a Union counter-attack opportunity and toe-poking the ball away for Stajduhar to clear. Another of those plays came when Robin Jansson prevented Daniel Gazdag from being in 1-v-1 against Stajduhar in the 16th minute after a badly misplaced pass from Halliday. Those two plays alone kept the game scoreless at the break. Rodrigo Schlegel made the third critical defensive stop late in the match. With the Union sending more numbers forward in search of the equalizer, the Argentine was faced with multiple attackers on a transition opportunity. Just as the ball was being slipped in for a 1-v-1 chance, Schlegel, tracking back, was able to contort his body and dangle out a foot to prevent a key pass in the 85th minute. If any of those desperation defensive plays had gone differently, the Union could have turned things around.
Signs of Connectivity...Finally
For the past three games, Orlando City has been missing its connection between the back and the front. As a result, the Lions had only mustered a total of 12 shot attempts across three games, with five on target. Four of those five shots on target came against expansion Charlotte FC. Orlando had only three shots (none on target) in the loss to the New York Red Bulls and only two (one on target) in the loss at Montreal. The offense has been brutal and Kara has been isolated on an island, unable to affect matches the way he should. Last night was different. Against a good, and active, Philadelphia midfield, the Lions had more success. In addition to Urso’s help as mentioned above, Pareja utilized Andres Perea and dropped forward Alexandre Pato into much deeper role.
It wasn’t perfect. Perea still had some curiously poor passes and touches and showed too much of the ball to defenders at times (how about that golazo, though?). Pato didn’t have a good passing rate — just 62.1% — and tried a few too-fancy maneuvers in traffic that didn’t come off. Still, the duo made very few critical mistakes and, more importantly, created space and held the ball long enough for players to make the transition from defense to offense. This has been a missing component of the team. Against the Union, Kara and Torres were able to stay higher on the pitch than they’ve been in recent games, and that helped the offense. Kara fired two shots and one of them went in. Torres also had a shot on target and created a team-best four scoring chances. With more time on the ball, as well as receiving it in better positions, both of the Lions’ two most advanced attacking players passed at 80% or better (85.3% for Torres). It was a small adjustment that led to a much bigger performance. A little better night from Pato — who came tantalizingly close several times to pulling off audacious moves in traffic — and Perea would have helped Orlando become even more dominant.
Bonus Takeaway: She Said Yes!
Stajduhar made a diving stop off a set piece chance at the death to preserve the victory — one of three saves on the night. He stayed focused all game long and couldn’t do much about the lone Union goal, which was placed beyond his reach. His focus was just as sharp after the match, as he quickly tracked down the member of the Orlando City staff with whom he’d left a ring. After securing that ring and getting his girlfriend, Tatiana, onto the pitch, the Homegrown goalkeeper got down on one knee and popped the question.
She accepted, and I’d like to think she would have said yes even if that final Union shot had gone in. But would Stajduhar have popped the question on the pitch after a loss? We didn’t ask him in the postgame press conference, and thankfully the result prevented us from finding out. Congratulations to the happy couple!
That’s what stood out to me from Orlando City’s best performance in weeks. What did you notice? Let me know in the comments.