Orlando City finally scored more than two goals in a game this season but that provided no comfort as the Lions were bombed for five goals in a 5-3 home loss to D.C. United on Independence Day at Exploria Stadium. Some fans had barely settled into their seats before the home team was behind by two goals and things got worse before they got better...and then got worse again...and then got better...and then finally sunk to the worst. It was the most goals conceded by Orlando at home under the current regime, and it came at the hands of a team that had scored only 18 total goals in 15 previous matches.
Here’s what I took away from Monday night’s match.
Best XI > Not-Best XI
There is a notable depth issue with this year’s Orlando City squad and even if the players and Head Coach Oscar Pareja like to (understandably) talk publicly about how much belief they have in the entire roster, that is not a belief that bench players have given reason for anyone to share. The coaching staff tried to steal a little rest for starters Cesar Araujo and Facundo Torres Monday night, starting Sebas Mendez and Alexandre Pato in their spots. Additionally, Antonio Carlos continues to work back slowly from his thigh injury and Joao Moutinho — upgraded to ‘questionable’ on this week’s availability report — was not in uniform. Some of the team’s biggest issues against D.C. United came from those spots. We’ll get into some of those specifics below, but with eight matches this month, Orlando City had to have three points from a home game against a team riding a six-match winless skid dating back to early May. With the most days off between games the team will see until August happening between last Wednesday’s match vs. Nashville and Monday night, and Monday night to this Saturday against Miami, those are the two matches in which it’s perhaps wisest to play the best available lineup, resting guys where possible when the fixtures get more crowded.
But hey, I’m not in training every day, so if guys were looking a bit leggy or nursing minor knocks, then Pareja did the right thing in rotating.
A Night to Forget Defensively
Giving up five goals is often a team effort, and so it was Monday night. Most of what D.C. did offensively began in Orlando’s attacking third. Poor decisions or badly executed passes led to turnovers that started the D.C. transition and the Lions simply didn’t handle those situations well at all.
Rodrigo Schlegel’s 1-v-1 defending in transition has been spotty in the last week (albeit against admittedly high-quality players like Hany Mukhtar and Taxi Fountas) and Monday night it was an issue, in addition to the Argentine conceding the free kick that handed Fountas his third goal. But some of that defending wouldn’t have been necessary had Kyle Smith not had a howler of a night at left back, subbing for the injured Moutinho. For all the versatility and admirable willingness to do whatever he can to help the team Smith possesses, Monday night was an incredibly harsh reminder that he is not the starter at the position. Smith was absolutely smoked by...well, whoever D.C. threw at him — Michael Estrada, Drew Skundrich, or anyone who fancied a go down United’s right attacking channel.
Finally, there’s Mendez to wrap up this (lengthy) takeaway. The Ecuadorian has shown himself to be a capable player and many have felt he needed to get some minutes. On Monday night, Mendez got the start and the cynical part of me wonders if it was a showcase for a potential trade. If so, things didn’t go as planned. Mendez showed some rust and, as a No. 6 who normally needs to be forcibly dragged into the attacking half, he was often missing from the team’s efforts to track back in transition.
Pato Not in a Good Place Right Now
With Pato starting in place of Torres, the hope was that scoring a vital penalty in the shootout after Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup draw with Nashville SC might give the Brazilian veteran some confidence to get back to the form he displayed at the start of the season, when he was arguably the team’s best player on the field. That was not the case.
Pato’s touch, crossing, and passing have been an issue for several games now. Monday night he had a team-high five unstable touches and opponents are getting wise to his hesitation move and they’re waiting on it. He’s also been easy to knock off the ball. As a result of his play, the Lions gave away the ball while in vulnerable positions on Monday. And his shooting was no better — excellent penalty-kick goal aside. In open play he found himself in space twice just outside the box in the middle of the field and he hit both shots wildly off target.
The Lions need more from a player of Pato’s caliber.
Lions Lack Balance
Orlando isn’t getting enough production from the wings, which helps teams that play defensively compact games and keep their lines well organized. Outside of Torres, wing play has been spotty (at best) all season. Pareja has tried several things to fix that. Benji Michel, Junior Urso, and Pato have taken turns and the club brought in Jake Mulraney from Atlanta. Not only has nothing worked with any kind of consistency, but the fullbacks have provided little on the overlap. Moutinho’s absence doesn’t help with that and I don’t even have to get into Ruan’s crossing because...well, Ruan. The diminutive Brazilian speedster is an agent of chaos, which sometimes produces exactly what is needed but often wastes promising attacking opportunities. By providing no threat opposite Torres in either the scoring or the crossing departments, the Lions become much easier to defend. D.C.’s five-man back line was hardly challenged from wide areas and felt comfortable enough to not stretch itself sideline to sideline.
Bereft of Bench Firepower
While Torres did come off the bench and provide a goal and an assist, he’s a starting player, so that’s not unexpected production. The problem lies elsewhere on the bench. This is partly under the umbrella of the team balance mentioned above. In addition to the team lacking balance on either side of the field, it lacks any balance in scoring from the starting XI to the bench.
Michel is on pace for the worst statistical season of his career and the Homegrown winger hasn’t scored since the season opener. Although he was fortunate to win a penalty against D.C., it wasn’t a terribly threatening night for him. Tesho Akindele had a glorious late chance in transition against United but predictably fired with his strong foot, which Rafael Romo did well to read and easily smother, whereas a quick movement onto his left might have produced a more difficult opportunity, yet with a much higher probability of success. For all of Michel’s struggles, Akindele has yet to score an MLS goal in 2022. However, it’s important to keep in mind he hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in any league match since March 27 at Portland, which makes it difficult to find any kind of form.
Oh, and Jack Lynn made a late appearance but wasn’t on the field long enough to work up a sweat, let alone make an impact. There is no super sub on this year’s roster. There are barely even guys who can change the game’s energy. That was apparent against D.C.
Bonus Takeaway: Adding Injury to Insult
As bad as Monday’s match was, it could have a longer lasting impact. Captain Mauricio Pereyra, the team’s only viable No. 10 and chief breaker of lines, pulled up in the waning moments of the game with a non-contact injury while retrieving a ball out of play for a throw-in. The extent of the injury wasn’t known after the match and he’ll be evaluated today. An injury to Pereyra is precisely the worst possible player to lose, given the lack of anyone’s ability to replace what he does in the lineup and it underscores the club’s biggest off-season failure — finding a suitable backup. If the technical staff thought Andres Perea would grow into that kind of player, it hasn’t happened. In fact, Perea has regressed a bit in 2022. Torres seems more comfortable in wide spots and is still young and developing. Pato might be the closest thing the team has to a backup No. 10, but his form is dreadful at the moment and his passing rate and tendency to take on multiple defenders himself can be a liability in that position. If Pereyra’s injury from late Monday is serious — and he was limping after the match — it could mean more than one battle lost for Orlando.
Those are the talking points I had from Monday night’s loss. What stuck out to you? Let’s chat about it in the comments section below.