A win is a win, even the ones that aren’t pretty. Orlando City fought off a tenacious New York Red Bulls team and was able to grind out a 1-0 win on opening night in front of an electric crowd at Exploria Stadium. When you think about it, the fact that the Lions have gone nine straight years in MLS without losing their opener is incredible.
Let’s dive into some of the details of the match.
That New York Press was Wicked
Rather than burying the Lions for their opening night performance, the correct response is to praise the visitors. The Red Bulls were relentless and that never stopped. New York imposed its will on the game, forcing Orlando into areas where the next pass became predictable and then the Red Bulls not only correctly predicted that next pass but also timed their interceptions well. New York nearly doubled Orlando’s interception total in the match, anticipating and reading the play out of the back well and keeping compact lines between the midfield and defense the few times Orlando was able to cross midfield. I honestly didn’t think the Red Bulls could keep that up for 90 minutes but to their credit, they did. Orlando will get better at handling it as Robin Jansson gets further removed from foot surgery, Mikey Halliday gains experience, Luca Petrasso and Martin Ojeda get more familiar with the movements of their teammates, and the calm, quick feet of Antonio Carlos return to the lineup. When even Cesar Araujo is struggling to find an outlet, that press is working well.
Opening Day Clean Sheets: An Oscar Pareja Tradition Unlike Any Other
Orlando City has yet to concede a goal in an opening match under Oscar Pareja. Papi took over the team prior to the 2020 season and his first two teams opened the year with 0-0 draws. The Lions bested CF Montreal 2-0 last season to start their campaign. On Saturday night, the team was at it again. Despite a plethora of horrible giveaways that could have been costly, the team recovered time and again to put out fires. Araujo made up for one such error by blocking the ensuing shot. Jansson took a yellow card after a gaffe of his own on a play that Gerhard Struber said should have been a straight red for denial of a goal-scoring chance but the replay showed Rodrigo Schlegel was inside the box with a potential angle to challenge Elias Manoel anyway. It also didn’t hurt that the Red Bulls missed the net on some good opportunities. Considering how much time the ball was on Orlando’s half of the field, it’s a testament to the defense that the visitors managed only 14 shot attempts, with just nine coming from open play and five from set pieces.
But there was another reason for the clean sheet...
Go Ahead and Build the El Pulpo Statue
The Red Bulls put only four of their shots on frame, but three of them were cannon blasts and Pedro Gallese handled everything they threw at him. Lewis Morgan’s blast in the 22nd minute may have been right at the Orlando goalkeeper but it had so much pace and power on it that all he could do was put his fists together and fight it off. That was the easiest save he made until the final touch of the game, when Casseres’ free kick cleared the wall but came straight to him. The two in between were the hard ones.
The first of those came in the 72nd minute. With a free kick from long range, Morgan played it backward to John Tolkin. The defender floated a hopeful ball into the box that Gallese punched out of the area. It was picked up by a New York player, who smashed it back toward goal through traffic. Gallese was still trying to recover from going to ground and he parried the shot away from his knees. The next was even tougher. Casseres picked up a loose ball in the box to Gallese’s left and blasted a shot from close range toward the near post. Gallese got his shoulder and face to it to stop what looked for all the world like the equalizing goal.
A Work in Progress
We’ve talked about it on The Mane Land PawedCast, but not everyone listens to that, so I’ll say it here: the offense is going to need a little time to gel with the addition of a key player like Martin Ojeda — and Gaston Gonzalez, when he gets in the lineup now that he’s returned from Argentina after securing his green card. These are players used to being on the ball. Despite them going through preseason with their teammates, there was a lot of travel back and forth for immigration paperwork purposes — notably, for the green cards for Facundo Torres, Ercan Kara, and Gonzalez. The pieces of the puzzle should ultimately fit together nicely. The friendly against New England was a glimpse of what it can look like, although a preseason scrimmage with no game planning can be misleading. There was evidence Saturday night of Ojeda and Torres (or Ojeda and Kara) sometimes not being able to read where the other was going. It will work itself out as they spend more time on the pitch together, but expecting perfection immediately is unrealistic.
The Fullback Play Looks Different
Going with two young guys on either side of the back line is going to have its ups and downs. We saw some of each on Saturday. There were some mistakes and misreads, but I thought Mikey Halliday and Luca Petrasso played well overall. They bring different skills to the table than what the club had with Joao Moutinho and Ruan. Moutinho was so good and effortless in the air and was adept at a timely sweep of the leg to dispossess opponents. Ruan just had that unteachable aspect of speed in swooping in to regain possession, and he had an ability to serve as an agent of chaos (which could be either good or bad).
Moutinho didn’t overlap much on the left side — possibly due to Ruan playing so high on the right — so it’s understandable that when Petrasso got forward a few times against New York, Ivan Angulo decided to take on two defenders rather than backheeling a pass into the corner for the left back to run onto with plenty of room to cross or cut in toward the box. On the other side, Halliday had a couple of nice crosses but also smashed a ball off the single guy in front of him with plenty of space to open himself up for a better look. The play was solid and the consistency will take some time.
Petrasso and Halliday look like they could become an excellent tandem for years with a little more seasoning, but there is going to be some inconsistency with two guys in their early 20s on the edges.
Bonus Takeaway: Enrique Brings Energy
We now know who will serve as Orlando’s new Benji Michel. Ramiro Enrique’s insertion into the match after the Lions took the lead was an important substitution. Not only were Enrique’s fresh legs noticeable against the defenders who had played all night for New York, but he has a high motor that allows him to win balls that it doesn’t appear he has any business winning. He also splashed his skill with the ball in the 80th minute when he undressed Tolkin — who had an incredibly good night for the Red Bulls — then beat a second defender to get a shot off. It was deflected out for a corner, but it was one of the highlight moments of the match for me, and I look forward to seeing the 21-year-old Argentine develop as a pro.
Those are the things I noticed on Saturday night. What stuck out to you? Let me know in the comments below.