Orlando City lost on the road for just the second time in 2022 at TQL Stadium — a place that has been more than kind to visitors since it opened. FC Cincinnati (7-7-2, 23 points) got a second-half goal from Brenner to lift the hosts to just their third home win this season, 1-0 over the toothless Lions (7-6-4, 25 points). FC Cincinnati improbably swept the season series after never tasting victory previously against Orlando.
A win would have lifted the Lions to the top of the conference but instead, the Lions reached the halfway point of the season in a precarious position due to having played more games than the teams around them in the standings. That includes Cincinnati, which pulled within two points of Orlando with a game in hand.
“I thought it was a game full of inconvenience for us,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the game. “We were trying to overcome from warmups with the needs of changing players and things needed to adapt according to our game plan. But with that situation I thought we had a decent first half when we tried to control the ball with not much ambition moving forward, but in certain ways we controlled the ball. That’s something that we like.”
Pareja’s lineup included goalkeeper Pedro Gallese behind a back line of Thomas Williams, Rodrigo Schlegel, Kyle Smith, and Ruan. Cesar Araujo and Junior Urso were deployed in the central midfield behind an attacking midfield line of Jake Mulraney, Andres Perea, and Facundo Torres, with Ercan Kara up top. Although not on the availability report, Mauricio Pereyra was not in the game day lineup.
An Orlando City spokesman said Mauricio Pereyra is being held out of the lineup for precautionary reasons. Additionally, Joao Moutinho experienced pain during warmups and was held out of the match.
However, center back Antonio Carlos did make the bench for the first time since sustaining his thigh injury in early April.
The hosts got the first good chance of the match on a corner in a sixth minute. Haris Medunjanin sent a pass to the top of the area for Brenner, who was open on the set play but fired his shot wide of the right post.
Nick Hagglund had a great chance on a set piece played short in the 14th minute. Geoff Cameron was played to the end line by Ray Gaddis and sent it to Hagglund right in front of goal for a glorious opportunity, but Gallese made a huge save to keep the game scoreless.
Orlando City struggled to break down Cincinnati’s back line, with slow movement, sloppy touches, and a lack of runs allowing the hosts to stay compact and organized. As a result, the Lions never looked a threat to score except during a play in the 31st minute, in which Mulraney was offside in the buildup. That sequence ended with Kara firing a hard shot that Roman Celentano saved. It was a good stop but Kara’s shot was too close to the keeper, giving him a chance. Also...you know...offside on Mulraney.
In the 33rd minute, the Lions did well to clear a set piece and looked to have a great counter opportunity, but Perea spoiled it with an extremely heavy touch in the open field, allowing John Nelson to come over and make a sliding tackle to break things up.
After that brief attacking phase, Cincinnati got two golden opportunities to open the scoring but Gallese thwarted both. Alvaro Barreal was left all alone at the top of the area when he took a pass from Brandon Vazquez. He had plenty of time to line up his shot but Gallese made a big stop to keep it scoreless.
On the ensuing corner kick, Hagglund was all alone at the back post for a free header, shaking free of Williams, but Gallese made his best save of the half from point-blank range, and the Lions cleared the rebound.
Orlando finally got a shot attempt on goal a few seconds into injury time, when Mulraney got his head on a cross near the top of the area. His shot was on target but had little power on it and gave Celentano no trouble. It was the last action of the half.
The Lions held more possession (56.4%-43.6%), but generated next to nothing in the attack despite having much more of the ball. The Lions were also more accurate in the passing game (83.8%-81.4%), while Cincinnati had more shot attempts (5-3), shots on target (3-1), and corners (3-0).
Carlos made his return to start the second half, coming on for Williams. Benji Michel also replaced Mulraney.
Not much changed in the run of play in the second period. Torres did get an opening to go for goal from distance in the 51st but he scuffed the shot and it didn’t trouble goal.
Two minutes later, Gallese again came up huge. Vazquez cut across Schlegel and got a powerful header on target at the near post. Gallese stopped it and then stuck out a foot to deny a rebound opportunity, allowing his defense to clean things up.
Luciano Acosta came on as a sub for the hosts and his movement and passing opened things up for Cincinnati. He bounced a shot in on goal from long range with one of his first touches, that didn’t trouble Gallese, but he was a handful.
The Lions finally got a through ball to Kara in the 60th minute, but like Torres earlier, he scuffed the shot attempt. It ended up on goal but very slowly and easily for Celentano. That was it for Kara, as he was replaced shortly thereafter by Alexandre Pato.
Acosta shook free at the left corner of the box in the 64th minute and fizzed a curling shot just over the bar. But moments later the hosts found a breakthrough. Urso turned the ball over in his half and Cincinnati made the Lions pay for it. Acosta took a shot that deflected toward the near post and Gallese got over to stop it but he couldn’t handle the rebound. Acosta got to it first and sent it in front to Brenner, who got away from Schlegel. Brenner only had to redirect it in from point-blank range to make it 1-0.
“I think I did a good job with those eight saves, but obviously a shame that I wasn’t able to help the team on that one that got through,” Gallese said through a club interpreter. “A little bit of frustration there.”
Pato took a shot from outside the area that buzzed well over the bar in the 66th minute and then the match turned into a spell of Orlando passing it around without generating anything and then falling back to break up Cincinnati counters.
Orlando had a late opportunity to find an equalizer off a set piece. Although the service was poor from Pato and should have ignited a counter, the Lions quickly won the ball back in the attacking third and Pato was slipped in on the right. Unfortunately, the Brazilian had a poor touch that took him wide and his chance at a shot evaporated. He did well to cross it to Carlos at the back post but the defender’s header skipped wide.
The Lions kept coming but Pato’s uncharacteristically poor service on a couple of late set pieces and a wide-open chance to cross during open play from the right prevented any chance to rescue a late point. The latter opportunity was so poor that it ended up in the stands behind the end line rather than coming close to any teammates in the box.
Orlando finished with more possession (54.1%-45.9%) and passing accuracy (83.1%-80.7%) than the hosts, but FC Cincinnati fired more shots (14-7), and more shots on goal (9-2). Each team finished with three corner opportunities.
The Lions wasted Gallese’s stellar night, as the Peruvian international made eight saves, and most of them were difficult ones.
“In the second half I thought our roles changed,” Pareja said. “Cincinnati started having more of the ball. And then after the goal we found the reaction needed to be earlier from us and it was not much up front.”
Pareja took responsibility for the team’s poor movement and lack of ideas in the attacking third, but it seemed obvious that without Pereyra on the field, the Lions on the pitch lacked confidence in either themselves, their teammates, or both.
“As much as Mauro is an important piece of our team and he has that crafty game that opens doors for us in the last 20, 25 yards, we assume the responsibility,” Pareja said. “We have enough players that can create and then once again it could be as well the way I line (the team) up, the way that I present the plan, and I take that responsibility today. I did not feel I could help them to make sure we have that strength up front and where it could be position or just put people in places where they can have more possibilities. We were not creative today in those last 20 yards. Indeed.”
Neither the ball nor the players moved quickly enough to create any gaps in the Cincy defense and no one seemed particularly interested in even trying to beat an opponent 1-v-1. Sometimes decent shots were passed up in an effort to find a perfect one, and more than one opportunity to cross evaporated due to holding onto the ball too long on the wings.
For all his potential as a player somewhere in the Orlando midfield, Perea just isn’t a viable replacement for Pereyra and there doesn’t appear to be one on this current roster, although there is more than one way to create opportunities that don’t rely on a Designated Player’s ability to see passing lanes that are barely visible.
The Lions will next take the field Wednesday, June 29, when they host Nashville SC in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. The next Orlando City league game will take place July 4 at home against D.C. United.