For the second time this week, Orlando City struck first but then produced no offense at all, conceded late, and settled for a 1-1 draw. This time it was against rival Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Lions (8-7-6, 30 points) got an early goal from Mauricio Pereyra, but then struggled to find any possession beyond midfield for the rest of the game, and generated next to nothing in the attack. Atlanta (6-8-6, 24 points) generated plenty but once again Pedro Gallese helped his team at least earn one point after Juan Jose Purata equalized.
“A great point for us. Very proud of the work the players did in the field,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “Obviously, there is a lot of things that we would like to get better at, but at this stage of the season, this amount of games, the point is very, very valid for us against a rival that — especially in the second half — threw all that they had, and we couldn’t keep the ball and keep it away from those attacking sides.”
Pareja’s lineup included Gallese in goal behind a back line of Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Rodrigo Schlegel, and Ruan. Cesar Araujo and Junior Urso manned the central midfield behind an attacking line of Jake Mulraney, Pereyra, and Facundo Torres, with Ercan Kara up top. Joao Moutinho and Adam Grinwis returned to the team sheet on the Orlando bench.
The Lions started quickly and won several early set pieces. They made one pay off 10 minutes in due to a pair of Atlanta mistakes. Torres was losing the ball at the top of the box when George Campbell kicked him with a meaty challenge to draw the whistle. While goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo was setting up his wall on his left, he was still in that position well after the whistle blew and Pereyra smashed a perfect free kick into the inside netting on the opposite side of the goal to make it 1-0.
“I was waiting to shoot over the wall and then I listened to the whistle and the keeper stayed on the other post,” Pereyra said. “And I just kicked the ball. Always in soccer you should be more concentrated and be smarter, and I took advantage of that.”
It was Pereyra’s first goal since May of 2021.
After the goal, the rest of the first half was all Atlanta — to the point where I’m not even sure Kara touched the ball again before halftime with the exception of one or two aerial attempts that skipped off his head and to the defense when Orlando sent the ball long.
The hosts had a number of dangerous chances, starting in the 17th minute when a perfect ball from Luiz Araujo found Marcelino Moreno over the top. Rather than shooting first time, Moreno took a touch, which allowed Ruan to knock it free. Jansson did just enough to thwart the second ball in.
Much of the remainder of the opening period was spent in Orlando’s half. Atlanta won a series of set pieces and the Lions looked to counter but were never able to do so. In the 23rd minute, Aiden McFadden got a couple of crosses in. Torres cleared the first one down the pitch and the second was too close to Gallese.
Purata smashed a shot wide from distance in the 27th minute, just moments after Amar Sejdic sent a free kick from the right straight at Gallese.
Torres let Atlanta off the hook for an errant pass in its own third in the 33rd minute by collecting the loose ball and then promptly dribbling into a thicket of three defenders, where he was dispossessed.
Ronaldo Cisneros did well to direct a free kick cross on target while falling away from goal in the 38th minute, however, Gallese was able to tip the shot over the bar and Schlegel cleared the ensuing corner.
There was a scary moment late when Moreno beat Smith at the end line and dribbled into the area. While standing behind the end line the two players tangled and Moreno visibly flopped. There was a loud penalty shout from the crowd — less so from the Atlanta players — and Victor Rivas held up play for the video assistant referee to have a look, but there was nothing given.
Jansson cleared a late free kick service and that was it for the first half in which the Lions did nothing but defend after their 10th-minute goal.
Atlanta finished the half with more possession (58.1%-41.9%), shots (3-2), corners (2-1), and passing accuracy (86.7%-82.1%). Each team managed one shot on target.
The second half was, if anything, even more lopsided in favor of the hosts than the final 30 minutes of the first. The Lions struggled to string together two passes and could scarcely get out of their own half.
“The strategy since the beginning was to reduce the spaces between the lines of (Atlanta), where they have very crafty players who can use those spaces,” Pareja said. “And on the other side, we wanted as well to have control of the ball and create some sequences that provide us some chances. I think we did it in the first half. In the second half, we knew the reaction of Atlanta was coming. We were not very clear in keeping the sequences longer, and then it was heavy to maintain our team in a different place on the field. We couldn’t keep the ball.”
Mulraney conceded a free kick in the 49th minute and Ruan followed that up by conceding the first of several corners he gave Atlanta shortly after that. Despite the set pieces, it was Sejdic who got the first real look at goal in the second half, but he fired wide of the left post in the 54th minute.
Tesho Akindele and Benji Michel were sent on for Kara and Mulraney to add fresh legs but not much changed on the field. Atlanta, getting all of the attack and rarely being threatened, threw even more offense on the pitch after that, introducing Josef Martinez and Thiago Almada.
Orlando won a corner on a rare foray up the field in the 64th minute but it was Atlanta that nearly scored off of it. The clearance turned into a transition opportunity and multiple Lions failed to break it up until Araujo finally tracked down the ball and made a good play to prevent a scoring chance.
Pareja sent on Carlos and Perea for Smith and Torres to try to find some more width on the defensive end and create some natural outlets since the team couldn’t get out of its own third. That didn’t work as well as he’d hoped as poor passes and anywhere-will-do clearing nearly always found an Atlanta player instead and in fact the move ended up costing the Lions moments later.
On a long-range set piece, Perea was lined up by Purata and was late stepping up, keeping him onside. Carlos was the next closest defender but expected Perea to have Purata covered. As a result, the Atlanta defender got in alone behind the defense and headed home the service from Almada to make it 1-1 in the 71st minute.
Former Lion Dom Dwyer spelled Cisneros three minutes later and his introduction gave the Atlanta offense an additional boost.
After Orlando defended a few more set pieces — and Jansson did well to smother a cross attempt in the six after a turnover by Carlos — Martinez fired just wide in transition in the 80th minute after a poor touch by Pereyra turned the ball over near midfield. Two minutes later, Gallese made a huge save to thwart a 2-v-1 opportunity and although the rebound fell to Martinez, the bounce was too much for him to handle. Then, Gallese made an even bigger stop moments later. Dwyer received the ball at the top of the area and was able to turn and smash a hard shot toward the upper left corner. Gallese somehow got over and got a hand to it to keep the game tied in the 82nd minute.
“We are trying to get better in the offensive side and (figuring out) how can we keep the ball longer and how can we create actions since we’re still battling with that side of the game,” Pareja said. “We have been depending a lot on our defenders to maintain us in the games and Pedro is part of them. It’s not what we want when Pedro has to work that much. He is part of our team. He’s doing a good job. Hopefully in the next (games) we don’t make him work that hard.”
The save took its toll on El Pulpo, who had to receive treatment from the training staff after landing on his right shoulder following the acrobatic save.
Martinez nearly single-handedly provided a late winner for the host a few times down the stretch. In the 89th minute, he fired a blast just over the bar. In the 92nd minute, Martinez hit the post on a transition opportunity.
The Lions nearly stole all the points in the 94th minute. Second-half sub Alexandre Pato ended up with the ball just outside the top of the area. He fired a hard, low shot to the right that crashed off the post, coming within inches of finding a winner.
Moreno hit a shot wide in the 95th minute and the Lions had to survive a 97th-minute corner to bring home a point.
Atlanta dominated on the stat sheet as much as it did on the field after the 10th minute, finishing with much more possession (61.9%-38.1%), shots (18-3), shots on target (4-1), corners (10-2), and passing accuracy (88%-80.6%).
This is a game Orlando could have lost by four or five goals if the Five Stripes had been a little more accurate with shots or if Gallese hadn’t come up huge a few times. The Lions were fortunate to get anything from a performance like this, but they’ll take it because it was on the road in a rivalry game. The performance, however, underlined the problems this year’s team has — primarily the imbalance between the offensive and defensive ends of the pitch.
“It’s something that we need to keep improving and growing up together,” Pereyra said about Orlando’s league-worst minus-10 goal differential in the final 30 minutes this season. “We know that defending is not just a thing from defenders and the goals are not just a thing for the forwards. It’s a collective thing and we are a group and we try to pull together.”
The Lions are right back in action Wednesday night in a midseason friendly against Arsenal. The next Orlando City regular-season match will take place Saturday when the Lions host the Philadelphia Union at Exploria Stadium.