There are some days you ask yourself why you still bother paying money to go to the games when the team seems like a bunch of Keystone Kops bumbling their way through a match filled with ineptitude. Then there are some days when you can't believe how quickly your team can put a string of goals together. Very rarely do you experience both in the same 90-minute match, and it's even more rarely when the combination works out the right way and your team snatches a thrilling victory from the jaws of a deplorable malaise.
Such was the lot of the 20,000 or so Orlando City fans who choose to stay to the end of the match instead of taking the substitutions as a signal that the team had given up when they were down 0 - 2. Those of us who did stay were treated to the sight of Chris Mueller's first goal in MLS (80th minute), Sacha Kljestan's first goal for Orlando City (82nd minute), and Dom Dwyer's third goal in two matches (87th minute). All that added up to a 3 - 2 come-from-behind victory for Orlando City, which vaults them to seven points on the year and fifth place on the Eastern Conference table with all the conference teams finished for the weekend.
That's the reader's digest version of the post. For those who want to settle in for a longer read, I now bring you your regularly scheduled Good, Bad, and Ugly column...
- Joe Bendik's Woodwork - The inimitable Ray Hudson would love to have called this match. In the first five minutes of the second half, tow of Joe Bendik's "skinny white friends" made clutch saves for Orlando City. The first came in the 48th minute as the ever dangerous Sebasitan Blanco drifted in from left side of the formation across the penalty area. When a teammate finally got the ball to him, he struck it hard toward the top of Joe Bendik's goal--only his shot was just a bit too high. The ball deflected off the crossbar and bounced down onto the turf a couple of yards out. Portland's Cristhian Paredes was there to try to shoot the rebound in, but birthday boy Mohamed El-Munir stuck a big leg out in front of the try and deflected the ball back out toward the midfield stripe.
Then in the 49th minute, Orlando City's defense fell into the trap I warned about in the lead up to the match. With large numbers of attackers to the left side of the formation, the 2017 MLS MVP Diego Valeri made a run out to the right side and was all alone without a purple jersey within ten yards. His teammates sent him the ball and it seemed a certainty that the Timbers would put their second goal up on the board. But Lamine Sane showed his fast closing speed, forcing Valeri to slide to the turf and rush his shot a bit, a shot that traveled across the mouth of the goal and deflected off of the left side goalpost and out across the touchline for an Orlando City throw-in. Someone in the front office needs to give the groundskeeper a raise--those extra coats of paint that they have been adding to the crossbar and goalposts came in handy today and helped keep the third and fourth Portland goals off the scoreboard.
- Coach Jason Kreis - Many fans are frustrated with Coach Kreis for a number of reasons. There are some die-hard fans who go all the way back to 2011 who will never love a coach the way they loved Adrian Heath. I respect that--I love how approachable and personable Adrian Heath is, and how a ten-minute conversation with him over a pint could always help me understand a bit more about the nuances and subtleties of The Beautiful Game.
There are also fans who have been incredibly frustrated that Coach Kreis is in love with the 4-4-2 diamond formation and has seemed unreasonably stubborn in not deviating from it, even though Orlando City plays in a stadium that has one of the widest pitches in MLS. Today, however, at least just for this match, I'm going to call out Jason Kreis for some praise on two counts. Count the first: he trotted out a 4-2-3-1 formation. Spreading Josue Colman, Sacha Kljestan, and Justin Meram across the attacking midfield meant that Orlando City was able to create a lot more chances on the ball than the visitors today. In fact, Orlando City nearly doubled Portland's shooting output by the count of 24 - 13 because of spreading the defense across the pitch and making space to create chances for shooting. I'm not going to try to say that all the shots were pretty or that they were quality shots--clearly, there were not as many of those as we would like--but there were enough to get the three points.
The second reason Coach Jason Kreis deserves some praise today is for his choice of substitutes. You can make arguments that I would gladly listen to (and might well agree with) on the timing of the substitutes, but I don't think it's possible to argue that the coach made the correct swaps. Chris Mueller's youthful exuberance is a shot in the arm to the team when he comes on late. For whatever reason, Justin Meram just has not looked like he has gotten in sync yet with his new Orlando City teammates. It was a mere four minutes after Mueller came on in the 76th that the rookie ran across the face of goal on a Yoshimar Yotun corner kick and headed the ball in for Orlando City's first goal of the match. RJ Allen, another sub on the day, also got his name on the score sheet by registering the assist on Dom Dwyer's match-winning goal in the 87th minute.
- Energetic Play - While there are plenty of arguments to be made about its effectiveness, one very fun thing about watching the 2018 roster for Orlando City is the energetic style of play they bring to a match. Watching the game they keep the ball moving, and there is rarely any hesitation in getting the ball back into play when it goes over the touchline or the whistle blows for a free kick. This style also shows up in certain parts of the stat line. Consider the way this energetic play helped the team lead these stats on the day: Possession (58.4% to 41.6%), Corners (12 to 1), Crosses (30 to 5), and Total Passes and Passing Accuracy (455 @ 85% to 346 @ 78%). Moving the ball around the pitch and doing so accurately makes the other team chase the game, and in this case, the lads kept Portland chasing long enough to wear their legs out and earn a comeback victory.
- The Wall - The Ruckus and the Iron Lion Firm do not take any matches off. The team didn't have the most brilliant of starts to the season, and I think the slow start and the threat of rain kept a number of fans away from Orlando City Stadium today. But the wall kept the noise and the chants going long enough to get the three subs in, and then when Chris Mueller's header gave evidence the team had signs of life, The Wall's energy infused through the rest of the stadium and lifted the energy to help the lads find the inspiration for two more goals. The purple smoke from Mueller's goal also deserves an assist, I think, on the play that saw Dom Dwyer get fouled on the doorstep of Jake Gleeson's goal and gave Sacha Kljestan the chance to level the game with a PK.
- Shot Timing - When you watch a team sport long enough, you begin to get a sense of when the play is supposed to happen. You can see the receiver come open and know the quarterback should have the ball on its way. You can see the power forward making a run to the paint and know the alley-oop should be thrown. And you can see the defenders on the pitch move out of the way to leave the player open to shoot on goal. The problem is that it's always so much easier to see that from the stands with the benefit of perspective than it is to see it on the pitch in the middle of the match with the ball at your feet. From the stands I can see plays developing and I can see the defense opening (and I know 10,000 other fans see the same thing) and I start yelling "Now! Now! Now!" as I shake my hands in frustration. But it's about when I get to the fourth or fifth "now" that the player on our team finally shoots. Often by then, the chance is gone and the ball is deflected away by a defender or smothered or batted away by the goalkeeper. As a result, Orlando City often winds up being on the wrong end of stats such as these: Shots Off Target (9 to 4) and Blocked Shots (8 to 3). While it's nice to get more shots than the opponent in the match, you want those shots to also be better quality. And today for the first 80 minutes of the match the quality just was not there.
- First Half Funk - It took Orlando City until the second half of their fourth match of the season to ever have a lead in a game. And today in the fifth match, it took until the 87th minute to get the lead. For all the talent on paper that Orlando City possesses, the Lions seem to play the first half of matches like they are swimming in half-congealed jello. Portland's first-half goal was the result of a late tackle in the box by Mohamed El-Munir on Sebastian Blanco. The tackle was down low and Blanco's earlier antics at first made referee Baldomero Toledo think the Portland man was guilty of simulation. Blanco had already picked up a stupid yellow card in the 8th minute for arguing with Toledo about how far to back off from a free kick outside of the Portland penalty area, and I think it made the referee predisposed to believe the player would try more shenanigans during the match. And just before the half-time whistle, Justin Meram missed a point-blank chance on Jake Gleeson's goal because his tap-in try was too tentative, giving Gleeson the chance to dive toward the right post of the goal and stop the shot from going in.
- Deep Stat Doldrums - Longtime readers know that there are three stats I like to look at that are below the surface of the highlights that give a picture of how effective the teams are being. It's not always true, but it's more often true than not, that the team who wins these deep stats wins the match. Such was not the case today, where Portland soundly beat and in some cases crushed Orlando City in these deep stats. But as the victors, we can always point and say, "Scoreboard!" Still, I'd rather us address and correct the issue with these stats so that the team can be more effective in controlling three key areas: 50-50 balls, changes in match momentum, and protection of the six-yard box.
- Duels Won tells you which team is controlling the 50-50 balls. Today, Portland won that battle 58 to 48.
- Tackles Won tells you which team is forcing the change in possession and momentum. Today, Portland also won that stat line 19 to 15.
- And Clearances tells you which team does the better job of getting the ball out of the six-yard box when the opponent attacks. Despite Orlando City's victory, Portland cleaned their clocks in that stat by the count of 28 to 6.
Orlando City is going to have to thank whatever gods they follow for the gift of a win when losing all three of those categories. The picture painted by seeing the stats that the Lions won and those they lost is of a team that is blindly flailing in all directions and just happens to hit the ball enough times in the right direction to make it go in the net more often than their opponent. It's the kind of stat line you can have and still win against a team that is struggling as Portland is. But when facing a well-organized team like NYCFC or Atlanta United, that kind of chaos is just not going to cut it.
I'm happy for the win, and in the final analysis, I am very happy to have heard Coach Jason Kreis talk about how much more improvement this team needs to make before he is satisfied. "I was happy with the result, but not very happy with the performance," he said. I think that pretty well sums it up for me and most of the other fans that were in my section of the stadium.
What were your thoughts on the match? Which player or players stood out as having exemplary performances? What aspects of the game left you feeling frustrated and wishing the team would do better? Let me know in the comments below!