Orlando City’s Champions League hangover was on full display in a poor performance against the league’s worst team (so far) at Exploria Stadium. The Lions (1-1-2, 5 points) conceded twice in the first half and fell 2-1 at home to Charlotte (1-3-0), a team that had scored once and conceded a league-high seven times in its first three matches. The second half was much better than the first, but the hole was too deep to dig out of by then.
Enzo Copetti and Kerwin Vargas put the visitors up 2-0 by halftime. Martin Ojeda pulled one back for the Lions and there were opportunities to equalize but the tying goal never materialized in a game in which Orlando had two would-be goals denied for being offside. It was Charlotte’s first win in the series after Orlando took both matches by identical 2-1 scores last year.
“Very proud of our players in this moment, where we lost three points at home with a match that we all assumed that we should win,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the game. “Seeing the two halves and the way the game turned, I have to say that I’m very proud of these players. It’s my responsibility to create a lineup and create a game plan, and that part I have to analyze what (happened) in the first half. I did not help the boys, but their effort in the second half was fantastic.”
Pareja’s lineup was a strong one, considering the team was playing its fifth match in 15 days and suffered through a physical and emotional battle against Tigres UANL just three nights ago. Pedro Gallese started in goal behind a back line of Rafael Santos, Robin Jansson, Rodrigo Schlegel, and Michael Halliday. Cesar Araujo and Mauricio Pereyra played in central midfield behind an attacking line of Dagur Dan Thorhallsson, Ojeda, and Facundo Torres, with rookie Duncan McGuire up top. Ercan Kara picked up a knock late in the week according to a team spokesman and did not dress, with further evaluation needed to determine the extent of the injury.
Charlotte switched things up from its 3-0 loss to Atlanta. Karol Swiderski started on the bench despite the team having a regular match week. George Marks started in goal behind a back line of Harrison Afful, Bill Tuiloma, Adilson Malanda, and Jaylin Lindsey. The central midfield of captain Ashley Westwood and Derrick Jones was unchanged from last week, behind an attacking line of Vargas, Brandt Bronico, and McKinze Gaines, with Copetti up top in the 4-2-3-1.
The Lions were once again wasteful with opportunities in the first half and Charlotte topped its goal-scoring total from the first three matches of the year in less than half the game. Orlando City was incredibly sloppy at the back and was fortunate not to be punished even more than the two goals conceded.
The sloppiness started early with a turnover by Schlegel in the third minute that gave Charlotte an opportunity to break. Jansson did well to get back and deflect the shot back off the attacker and out for a goal kick.
A minute later, a good switch sent Halliday down the right in acres of space. The fullback’s cross was good and Ojeda knocked it in but he was offside on the play.
Charlotte had a couple of good chances to counter against the sloppy Lions over the next few minutes but couldn’t do much more than put a weak Vargas header out in front for Gallese to pick up.
Orlando’s first shot of the game came in the eighth minute when Torres was sent down the left side. The Young Designated Player smashed a shot toward the far post but Charlotte goalkeeper Marks stuck out a hand and made the save.
Ojeda tried a shot from outside the area in the ninth minute but it was deflected out for a corner. On the ensuing corner kick, Jansson had a free header but hit it just over the bar.
Charlotte switched the ball right to left in the 16th minute to free up Vargas for a shot but he missed wide of the right post. The Lions immediately turned over the ball in their own third and were fortunate that a heavy touch sent the ball back out for a goal kick rather than leading to a dangerous shot.
Orlando City had a good spell over the next few minutes, with McGuire getting into the box in the 18th minute. He fired a shot that took a slight deflection, which took some of the steam off of it and helped Marks make the save. Two minutes later, Thorhallsson was loose down the middle and had options in the box. He chose to shoot instead and sent it just over the bar.
A Schlegel mistake in the 25th minute gave Charlotte a transition opportunity but Gallese made a huge stop on Gaines’ shot to keep it scoreless.
That didn’t last long. A minute later the Lions were beaten over the top on a good long ball from Lindsey to Copetti, who slipped the ball past Gallese to make it 1-0 with his second goal of the season. Charlotte actually had two players who burned the back line, as Jansson and Santos both got torched.
What a ball from Jaylin Lindsey— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 19, 2023
What a finish from Enzo Copetti @CharlotteFC strikes first against Orlando. pic.twitter.com/xr2pOoPmn1
“We need to get better,” Pareja said of the play by the defense. “Those plays obviously show us that we have a lot of work to do defensively, especially defending our crosses in.”
Orlando had a chance to pull that goal right back, with Torres bombing forward on a 2-v-1 break. The Uruguayan slowed as he was having trouble controlling the ball and he was bowled over from behind by Afful, who picked up a yellow card. However, the transition chance was gone and Ojeda smashed the ensuing free kick off a defender after taking a pass from Pereyra.
The switches to Halliday were open the entire first half and he again got forward in the 34th minute, sending a ball into the box that came off a defender and forced Marks to stop it. Three minutes later, Charlotte doubled its lead.
A switch to Vargas on the left beat Halliday and the Charlotte attacker fired a shot that deflected inside Gallese’s post off the defense, making it 2-0.
#ForTheCrown doubles the lead with a goal from Kerwin Vargas! pic.twitter.com/1MHbSGerJB— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 19, 2023
Neither team fashioned another good chance over the final minutes of the half and Charlotte took its shocking two-goal lead into the break.
Charlotte held a slim advantage in possession (50.6%-49.4%) at the break and passed more accurately as well (81.7%-78.5%). Orlando City had more shots (8-7) but the visitors put more on target (4-3). Each team earned one corner kick.
“We started the game off really strong. We were making the right decisions,” Santos said. “The game was going our way, according to our plan. And then once we hit around the 15-minute mark, they started to really put us in danger on the counter attack, primarily. And from that point on, we really just got caught out and then they punished us as a result of that.”
“In the first half we tried to congest the middle. We needed some solidarity there and just tried to use the spaces to control (the game), but things didn’t work that way,” Pareja said. “Things worked the other way. There was more space for them. The connections between all the defenders and the midfielders was bigger than we thought it was, or could be, in the game, and the second half we fixed it.”
Pareja sent on Kyle Smith and Ivan Angulo for Santos and Thorhallsson to start the second half and Orlando won a couple of early corners but didn’t do anything with them. Torres had a chance on the recycle of the second one but waited too long to shoot and had it poked away.
Things almost got worse for Orlando in the 50th minute. Gallese punched away a corner kick cross but it only reached the top of the box. Afful collected it there and fired a shot off the right post that nearly made it 3-0.
Angulo cut across the top of the box but kept it for himself and sent a weak shot dribbling wide of left post in the 54th minute. A minute later, Jansson won a ball in the air and no one pressed him so he came forward and smashed a shot but got under it, sending it into the upper deck.
The Lions finally got on the board in the 56th minute. Torres unlocked the defense with a pass in behind, and McGuire did well to get into the box on the left. The rookie sent a shot that Marks stopped. The ball came back to McGuire and the rookie squared it out of traffic to Ojeda, who fired into an empty net to make it 2-1.
Martín Ojeda bags his first goal of the season for @OrlandoCitySC, cutting the visitor's lead in half. pic.twitter.com/Y9pscZXBgz— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 19, 2023
“It was a play that Facu had started and hit up to Duncan behind the center backs,” Ojeda said. “Duncan was one on one with the goalkeeper, like it has to be with a forward, and it was initially saved and then Duncan was able to lay the ball off for me. Thankfully I was able to score. So, happy for the goal but we’re hurting that we weren’t able to get the victory tonight. But, we continue on.”
Orlando’s energy picked up with the goal and it seemed the Lions would go on to get an equalizer but it somehow never materialized. Torres sent a cross in for Ojeda in the 62nd minute. The Designated Player took his shot on the volley but got under it and lofted it out of play.
In the 68th minute, Ramiro Enrique nearly scored just a minute after subbing on, sending a header just inches over the bar from a good Torres cross. Moments later, substitute Gaston Gonzalez sent a ball across the face of goal but none of his teammates could get the touch needed to send it home.
In the 79th minute, Enrique was able to chip Marks and put the ball in the net but the flag came up and the call was confirmed by the video assistant referee for the second time in the match.
Ojeda smashed a ball that was headed under the bar in the 82nd but Marks got a hand to it to keep it out. Three minutes later, substitute Jack Lynn had a golden opportunity when he got down the right but his near-post attempt was at a comfortable height for Marks to save.
The final chance for City to tie the match was a good one. Torres sent a good ball into the area for Ojeda in stoppage time but he couldn’t make good contact at the back post and the ball skipped wide on what could have been the equalizing play. Ojeda finished the night with a game-high seven shot attempts, putting two on frame.
Orlando turned around the stat sheet in the second half, even if the Lions couldn’t turn around the scoreline. They finished with more possession (55.4%-44.6%), passing accuracy (80.8%-77.1%), shots (19-8), and shots on target (7-4), not allowing anything more than Afful’s shot off the post shortly after the restart.
“I have to move forward Once again, I take that responsibility. I didn’t like that first half — very unorganized and I think I didn’t (coach) well that half,” Pareja said.
The Lions can get some rest now with the schedule settling down a bit, but will need to make up some points for the ones dropped tonight. That won’t be easy with several international absences next Saturday at Philadelphia.