In 1969 Mick Jagger reminded us that even though you can't always get what you want, "If you try sometimes, you'll find you get what you need." Orlando City may have wanted a blowout performance with all its stars scoring goals in its season opener to christen the new Orlando City Stadium. That didn't happen, but they did open the season with 3 points and a victory, which is an improvement over the last two years when they had to come back in stoppage time to draw in their season opening match.
Orlando City also would have liked to see the captain, Kaka, score a goal in the inaugural match at the new stadium, but instead the crowd was momentarily hushed in the 8th minute when Kaka went down in front of the NYCFC goal and held his hamstring, and had to leave the pitch for an early sub of Giles Barnes in the 11th minute of the match. But Cyle Larin scored a header from an assist by Barnes in the 15th minute to give Orlando City a lead that they would hold the rest of the way, even in the face of wave after wave of attacks by a pesky and talented NYCFC squad.
The day was going to be a special day regardless of the result, with the club opening their new soccer-specific stadium, which has been a vision and an long-awaited jewel in the club's crown ever since Phil Rawlins brought the club here in 2011. Dignitaries from MLS Commissioner Don Garber to Rawlins and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and majority club owner Flavio Augusto da Silva all spoke to the crowd before the match. And an old favorite feature and tradition for supporter groups returned to the pitch as purple smoke poured up from the first few rows of The Wall before the match. And there was a beautiful TIFO for the game as well, proclaiming the new stadium as "A Gift from the Gods" with the stadium perched on a column and surrounded by Dionysus, Zeus, and Aphrodite (who sported rainbow hair to remember the victims of last summer's Pulse tragedy).
Orlando City got off to a fast start, controlling the possession and better chances for the first fifteen minutes of the match. In the eighth minute, Kaka made his second long run up the pitch into the top of the NYCFC penalty area and then went down awkwardly, clutching his hamstring without getting up for several moments as Cyle Larin stooped over him and then waved to the bench that they would need a substitute.
It was immediately clear that Kaka was done for the night. Though he stood up and walked on his own power, he never trotted or jogged until Giles Barnes could sub in for him a few moments later, and he draped a towel over his head in frustration as a trainer escorted him back to the locker room, even as he tried to acknowledge and thank the crowd for coming out to the match.
But Barnes proved to be the right player to bring off the bench. In the fifteenth minute he took a pass from Carlos Rivas at the top corner of the penalty area and sent it across to the back post, where Cyle Larin was positioned, and the Canadian striker headed the ball into the back of the net past UCF's own Sean Johnson, who was acquired by NYCFC from Chicago as one of the 12 new players Patrick Viera brought in during the offseason.
The goal put Orlando City ahead. And in years past that would not have been unusual, but it would have made fans nervous. Orlando City has a tendency to score first in matches when it registers a goal. but in its first two seasons of MLS play, the club only has 21 total wins in 68 matches, and only 13 home wins in 34 matches.
And after the Orlando City goal, NYCFC began applying pressure, which we have seen from visiting teams before back at the old Citrus Bowl. In the club's first two seasons, that pressure would find a weak point in the defense and would eventually have enough quality shots on goal to wear down Joe Bendik and get the ball into the back of the Orlando City net on multiple occasions.
But the new defense is much faster. Jose Aja returns to the lineup, but new players Will Johnson, Danny Toia, and Jonathan Spector were all over the pitch last night and largely prevented NYCFC from getting any quality looks on the ball. Many times it looked like the visitors had a shot it turned out that the defense had got them out of position for an offside call, and when it looked like there would be a clean opportunity, a defender would race in at the last second to tackle the ball away or deflect it enough to go wide of the net or give Joe Bendik an easier shot to save.
Referee Jair Marrufo largely decided to let the players decide the outcome of the match and kept his whistle in his pocket. He also didn't give many yellow cards, handing out only one in the first half. That went to NYCFC's Rodney Wallace for a hard tackle on Servando Carrasco in the 30th minute.
In the second half, NYCFC continued to put pressure on the Orlando City defense, but the new players continued to exceed the performance of the 2016 defense. Orlando city failed to hold the ball long enough to give the lads a chance to build up any sort of momentum in the attack, and it's clear that with Kaka's health in question the club is going to have to find someone on the roster that can step into the role of being a creator for the strikers like Larin, Barnes, and Carlos Rivas. I hope that if Kaka misses a few matches now it will mean he has fresher legs in the final third of the season, but that will do us little good if the defense gets worn down by mid-season for lack of possession and having to defend most of the match every week.
NYCFC held possession for more than 68% of the match, meaning that their differential was greater than the paltry 31% that OCSC managed to keep the ball. They also doubled OCSC in the number of shots by the tally of 14 to seven. But in many other stats, Orlando City actually had the edge: winning more duels (47), more tackles (14), and having more clearances (35) than the visitors. Of course the fact that Joe Bendik had 7 saves and the defense managed 35 clearances means that they were the side under attack more all match.
The defensive quartet of Johnson, Aja, Spector, and Toia all deserve great praise for making Joe Bendik's job easier. In past seasons, when the match hit the second half with Orlando City trailing to a one goal lead, you would start getting nervous, especially if the other team held the possession edge. It always seemed like they kept getting closer and closer to scoring, and eventually the lads would surrender a goal to tie and then more often than not it seemed like they would surrender more goals to lose. But the vibe was different last night. Defenders marked NYCFC's attacking players well enough that they rarely got a clean shot on goal, and the few times they did, it seemed like Joe Bendik was always right in the path of the ball.
Cyle Larin looked more active than usual off the ball, at least for the first half. After the 60th minute, he started to look winded, and Jason Kreis subbed him off for Cristian Higuita in the 73rd minute.
We saw both versions of Carlos Rivas in the match last night. We saw the impatient power striker who seems to forget the goal is not as tall as a pair of NFL uprights as well as the speedster with a great passing touch, as he was the one who set up Giles Barnes to deliver the assist on Larin's goal. We need more focus and precision from him and less wild gunslinging.
Joe Bendik was his usual sure-handed self. He made seven saves, but didn't have to make as many acrobatic ones as it seemed like he had to make each match last season.
For the visitors, two impressive players were substitute Sean Okoli and starter Alexander Ring. Ring seemed like he was always involved in every buildup or shot that NYCFC made on the night, and then when he subbed out in the 84th minute for Okoli, who came up to NYCFC from FC Cincinnati during the off-season, showed that he is going to be a dangerous player.
Coming back to what Mick Jagger told us at the beginning of the recap, we can remember that in 2016 Orlando City scored 55 goals (3rd in MLS), but surrendered 60 (tied for first). So while we may have wanted to see an explosion of offense, what we really needed was to see an improved defense. That we got, and it resulted in the best possible outcome of a soccer match: 3 points and a victory.
What were your thoughts on the match? Who impressed you with their play? Who disappointed you? What did you think of attending the match in the new stadium? Let me know in the comments below!