The rains came, the Wall rose up, and United went tumbling down!
On a rain-soaked night for a mid-week match at the end of a forgettable month of May, it would not have surprised many people to see a sparse crowd at Orlando City Stadium on Wednesday night. While the game was short of a sellout, there weren't many empty seats as the match got under way after a 40+ minute rain delay, and this time all the energy that The Wall brought to the Supporters Section flowed directly into the Orlando City players as they put together one of the most complete matches of the season.
Kaka was out with a calf injury suffered in the NYCFC loss that also prevented him from traveling to Minnesota last weekend, but as the lads showed at the start of the season, the roster has now become strong enough to win even when the Captain is not on the pitch.
Orlando played with heart and hustle from the opening whistle, and the effort payed off with a 2 - 0 victory and the first clean sheet for Joe Bendik and the defense since the month of April. To reach the final tally, Cyle Larin notched his 8th goal of the season and recorded his league-leading 5th game winner. Then late in the contest Giles Barnes came off the bench and added his first goal in purple on a ball that was just an unfortunate muff for DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
- Heart and Hustle - Long ago I learned from a wise observer of the game of soccer that the headline stats of possession and shot attempts are not always the best indicators of the stronger side. Instead, looking a little deeper in the stat sheet can show you which team really wants the match more. By nearly every measure, Orlando City proved that they were determined to win the game against DC United. Orlando City did lead in shots (19 to 10), shots on goal (5 to 4), and possession (57.2% to 42.8%). But they also led in those deeper stat categories such as duels won (63 to 33), tackles won (21 to 11) and clearances (23 to 14).
I have to admit I've not always recognized the importance of clearances in the stat line. Over the first two MLS seasons, I saw high numbers of clearances as indications that Orlando City's porous defense was allowing too many opponents to get the ball into the danger area where they could threaten our goal. But slowly this year as I've watched our improved defense fly around the ball, I've come to realize just how much hustle goes into clearing the ball out of danger, so I think I have to start including that as one of my stats to show the side giving more effort in a match.
- Just Keep Shooting - When you have a wet ball and rainy conditions, you have to count on the fact that goalkeepers are not always going to make the routine saves they usually do. Such was the case in the 88th minute when Giles Barnes struck a long-range looper that arced and curled straight toward Bill Hamid for what looked like an easy stop. But the spinning ball hit the goalkeeper's hands just right and squirted out with just enough momentum to trickle over the line and into the back of the net for the second Orlando City goal on the night. The outcome was likely already decided before that goal, but the extra insurance never hurts, and the recent form of Orlando City has seen them fall behind on goal differential, so they need to pad every win they can to get back on the plus side of that equation.
- Save of the Year - The MLS voting committee can just close the ballots now because the Save of the Year has been decided (unless "Super" Joe Bendik wants to do something even more spectacular). In the 74th minute, Orlando City made its only really ugly blunder on the night. Jose Aja tried to pass the ball back to Joe Bendik about 30 yards, with the problem being that DC United's opportunistic Lamar Neagle was lurking nearby and got a jump on the poorly-struck ball. Bendik saw the danger and sprinted toward the slowly-rolling ball, but Neagle had the jump and the advantage and reached it first, dribbling it out around the keeper and staring at what looked like an invitingly empty net. But Orlando City's best pickup of the offseason, Jonathan Spector, saw the open net and raced into position even before Bendik could fully recover and start making his way back.
Neagle struck a low, sharp ball and Spector got a foot on it for a great kick save that sent the glistening white orb arcing into the sky, and it became immediately apparent the danger wasn't over. As the ball came floating back to earth, DC United substitute Sebastien Le Toux raced toward the far post, where it looked like he was going to be able to easily head or chest the ball into the net. But by this time Bendik had recovered and he flew through the air Superman style, batting the ball away from Le Toux and knocking it back into the field of play where it led to an immediate Orlando City counter-attack that could have resulted in the second goal on the night had Giles Barnes not done his best Matt Prater impersonation by kicking the ball over the crossbar instead of into the net.
- That Beautiful, Beautiful Pitch - It's been a dry start to the season and the Orlando City pitch hasn't really been tested by rainy conditions until this match, and it came through with flying colors. While there was a lot of slipping and sliding on the grass as you would expect from wet conditions, there were not huge divots or ugly clumps of sod ripped up as players fought and strove and struggled for position and possession on the night.
- Passing Back to the Keeper - On a recent episode of SoccerCast, Orlando City analyst Tom Traxler expressed his disgust with the tendency of teams to start matches by passing the ball back into their defensive end, which only gives the other team a chance to pounce early and take advantage by threatening the goal seconds into the game. I won't argue with that assessment, and my pet peeve with soccer teams is the idiotic and nonsensical pass back from defenders to the goalkeeper. If I were Jason Kreis, I would make every player who passed back to the goalkeeper in a match run wind sprints the following day until they puked and then I would leave them out of the 18-man selection the next match to teach them a lesson not to do that nonsense any more. The object of the game is to put the ball into the other team's net, not to provide an open invitation to the opponent to pounce on the ball and put it into your own net. Jose Aja's mishit pass back to Bendik in the 74th minute was the worst example of this on the night, but there were other times that both teams were guilty of making the same stupid play, and if we want Cyle Larin to be the best poacher in the league, we should teach him to hang around by the last defender the whole match and then pounce on the ball every time the opponent makes that same dumb mental error of passing the ball back to the keeper.
- Slick Willy - Longtime readers know that I've been a fan of Bill Hamid since the first year of doing this blog, and on more than one occasion I've called for him to have a chance to play for the national team, at least in friendly matches if not in Cup Qualifiers or tournament matches. But last night's muff of the late long-range strike by Giles Barnes that led to Orlando City's second goal may be a reason why Hamid hasn't seen more looks from Bruce Arena or his predecessor with the US national side. I'm going to credit a wet ball for the mishandled stop, but after looking at the replay several times I'm not entirely sure it wasn't just a lapse of concentration at a critical moment that led to that score.
In the end the match was a much needed victory that saw Orlando City climb to 23 points and move back up to third place on the Eastern Conference table. Finishing is still a bit of a concern as Orlando City have not proved they can score more than two goals in a match, but if the defense can be relied upon to put in the kind of performances we saw in the early season and again last night, then two goals should be plenty to win most matches.
What were your thoughts on the match? What do you think was the best play of the night and who deserves to get Man of the Match honors in your opinion? Let me know in the comments below!