In a recent interview, coach Jason Kreis stated that the players were playing more as a unit than as a group of talented individual athletes. That has been evident in the team's first two matches of the 2017 season, resulting in the sharing the top of the Eastern Conference on six points with a game in hand over both Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls, who also have six points after three matches.
As a fan who has been very critical of the Orlando City defense in the first two seasons of MLS play, I see a huge difference in the team's defensive shape, with the club's faster, stronger, younger defenders flying around the ball and leaving opponents with few open looks or clean strikes on the ball toward Joe Bendik's net. In fact, at halftime last night I was checking MLS.com match stats, and it showed that Orlando City had kept Philly off the scoreboard without Joe Bendik having to make a single save. In past seasons, teams were breaking through the defense with alarming regularity, forcing Bendik to be just about the only player consistently keeping opponents from racking up really ugly score lines against us.
But the defense is not the only place we are seeing improvements in teamwork. I mentioned last week how beautiful it was to see new Lion Giles Barnes help finish the connection between Carlos Rivas and Cyle Larin for the club's first goal of the season. And last night, both Rivas and MPG got assists on the two goals Larin scored, while all four of the starting midfielders and even some defenders were involved in helping to create attacking opportunities for the team. And when Hadji Barry subbed into the game (welcomed by "U-C-F" chants led from The Wall) he didn't waste any time getting involved in helping to create opportunities as well.
Cyle Larin and C.J. Sapong got their names on the score sheets last night with goals for their respective teams. Larin scored his first in the 39th minute off of a lovely crossing pass from Carlos Rivas. The two strikers for Orlando City were racing down the pitch on opposite sides of the penalty area with three Philadelphia defenders between them. But the Union players were so poorly out of position that Rivas's ankle-high crossing shot from the left was neither impeded nor hindered and it was an easy tap-in on the far right side by Larin. And Rivas deserves a lot of credit for the way he settled the ball when it was passed forward to him. It was a 60-yard rainbow pass from defender Jonathan Spector coming over his shoulder that caught him in full stride, and with a little hop Rivas was able to ease the ball to the ground so it wasn't bouncing wildly when he crossed it over Larin for the shot. This kind of control and precision is something that is a hallmark of the best teams in the world, and it's great to see OCSC beginning to be able to put this kind of play together more often.
In the 52nd minute, Philly's C.J. Sapong equalized with a nice header that had equally good buildup. This play started with a long kick forward by goalkeeper Andre Blake that found Keegan Rosenberry at midfield, who kissed the ball out to Fabian Herbers on the right side of the pitch. Herbers pushed the ball forward and then found Alejandro Bedoya just outside the near post. Bedoya barely beat a strong slide tackle from Spector to lift the ball up and across the face of goal where it fell perfectly to Sapong's head, and he bounced the ball into the back of the net past a diving Bendik.
In the past, most goals given up by Orlando City would have happened because multiple defenders were caught ball watching or were yards out of position. In this case, Spector was tightly marking Bedoya and just got beat by a great shot, while Will Johnson was leaping shoulder-to-shoulder with Sapong to try to prevent the header, but the Union striker just had the advantage of position and a bit better vertical leap to nod the ball home. Perfectionists will rightly say that giving up the goal still showed that our lads did not play perfect defense, but I see a team playing defense in a way that is determined not to make anything easy for opponents, which is a huge improvement over the last two seasons.
In the 73rd minute Larin hit the game winner, and it was also the product of a long build-up. Jose Aja sent the ball forward from the back left of the pitch to Antonio Nocerino. The Italian pinballed a pass forward to Carlos Rivas, using the feet of a couple of Philadelphia players to guide the ball to its target, and then Rivas tapped it back out to the left edge to find MPG. The diminutive dynamo saw Larin racing toward the near post and sent a pass forward to his feet as Blake came charging off his line to try to intercept. But Larin proved speedier than the keeper and poked the ball hard and true past the diving keeper and into the back of the net for his second goal of the night.
Earlier I mentioned how Orlando City was playing much better team defense this season, with the defenders performing much more like a cohesive unit than a bunch of individuals trying to make plays. A good example of this came fairly early in the action. In the 14th minute, Philly had their first real threat at goal, and it was Jonathan Spector who came up with a great diving block. Chris Pontius was at the top left corner of the six yard box with nobody around him and nothing between him and a wide open net other than Joe Bendik. Pontius made a shot that the keeper probably would have smothered, but before it reached him, Spector was sliding across the pitch and kicking the ball clear from the danger area. His deflection would have carried the ball out for a Philadelphia corner if not for some quick footwork by Will Johnson, who came in and saved the ball off the back line and sent it out over the touch line for a throw in instead.
And both keepers got some great defense by their "long skinny white friends," as Ray Hudson would say. Orlando nearly gained the benefit of a Philly own goal early in the match when Philadelphia's Oguchi Onweyu attempted a header to clear the ball from his own defensive area. But he slightly misjudged the ball and it arced back toward goal as a scrambling Andre Blake was helpless to reach it. Fortunately for the visitors the crossbar of the goalpost was on duty and bounced the ball back up into the air and out into the field of play, preventing it from dropping in for an own goal.
And in the 93rd minute of play, Philly's Ilsinho made a dangerous shot through traffic that could have beaten Joe Bendik for a goal if it hadn't been for the far goalpost that was standing straight and tall on duty to rebound the ball back onto the pitch. But the play wasn't over, as Bedoya had a chance for a header near the same post moments later, which Bendik slapped away with authority to help preserve the Orlando City win.
Player of the Match
With two goals on the night, it's impossible to remove Cyle Larin from consideration for Man of the Match. At the same time, Larin scoring multiple goals in a match is nothing new. There were great plays by Rivas, MPG, Spector, Johnson, and others on the night. While I'm tempted to give the nod to a defender, I think I'm going to have to award my Man of the Match this week to Carlos Rivas for his involvement and contributions to both goals. He may not show up in the stats with two assists, but he was a key part of the buildup that led to both scores. He also gave himself up several times for the benefit of the team, and that kind of sacrificial play is deserving of some recognition.
Villain of the Match
If there's a hero in every story, there has to be a villain as well. And in this match that villain has to be Andre Blake. I mentioned earlier how Rivas gave up his body on more than one occasion last night. The first and most dramatic came in the first half when he charged at a ball dribbling toward the Philadelphia goal. Blake was just a fraction of a step ahead to the ball and managed to clear it away before Rivas arrived, but then the Philadelphia keeper clumsily slammed into Rivas and drove the Columbian striker to the ground hard. It was the kind of gasp-inducing foul that should have earned Blake a yellow card or worse and should have resulted in a PK for the home team. But no foul was called and Blake went for his water bottle and towel beside the back of the net with a cheeky smirk on his face because he knew he'd gotten away with one.
Fortunately as in all good stories, the villain always gets his comeuppance, and in the 22nd minute Antonio Nocerino was the agent who delivered the justice. MPG crossed a ball in toward the near post as Nocerino raced to meet it, putting him on a collision course with Blake. As both men converged on the ball, Blake managed to put his knee in the path of Nocerino's boot, earning himself a painful lesson in the price that must be paid for his earlier foul play.
It was a great victory for Orlando City and another boost of confidence for a team that still has at least one or two more matches to play without their captain, Kaka. The fact that the team are now finding consistent ways to create opportunities without everything having to flow through Kaka's feet is a great sign, since it seems increasingly likely that the Brazilian superstar will hang up the boots and shin guards after this season. Between that improved team offense and the much better team defense we are seeing in the early going, signs are pointing toward a much better result for the team in 2017 than its first two MLS seasons.
What about you? What did you think were the brightest moments of the match last night? How would you assess the progress of Orlando City's improved defense, and who was your player of the match? Let me know in the comments below!