Atlanta United's Gerardo Martino is a man who knows how to put together a team that is exciting to watch on the pitch. The last two matches for Orlando City have been among the most frenetic, fast-paced, and exciting matches all season. Martino's team swarms to the ball on defense and they attack quickly and often on offense, which forces opponents to either try to keep up or else just get run straight out of the building.
Orlando City put in another good defensive effort in Atlanta yesterday, allowing just one goal from a team that seems to take a shot after every sixth or seventh touch of the ball. Kaka scored a great goal off of a Cyle Larin assist late in the first half to put the Lions up, but the ghost of 2015 reared its head in second half stoppage time as Orlando City gave up a late goal for the second game in a row to the same player: Hector Villalba. This time Villalba's goal was good for the equalizer, but after taking 4 points in two matches, it's clear Atlanta has an early leg up in the budding southeast rivalry between the two young MLS clubs.
- Cyle Larin - Larin did not score, but he did everything else I could have asked of him, and that's why he deserves some positive recognition this week. I've said before (and I may have to say again) that Larin has often frustrated and infuriated me by trying to get away with being a finisher and goal poacher only. Not so yesterday: Larin raced up and down the entire attacking half of the pitch for the entire time he was in the match. His movement kept Atlanta defenders having to chase him around, and the result was that he often had more space when the ball did come to him. Another refreshing change was to see Larin making some one-touch and two-touch passes, which included his assist on the Kaka goal. Larin actually created a chance--that's a massive boost for the team, whether he's feeding the assist to someone else or creating an opportunity for himself. The sooner the lad learns to play that way every time Coach Kreis puts him in the Starting XI, the sooner we will see some better results from the team.
- Kaka - For the second match in a row, Kaka was a bundle of energy and was active all over the pitch. It's clear he's not quite as fast as he used to be, but he now has the wisdom of all those years and he can still read the flow of a match like few others. With the rest of his teammates flying around, he was able to pick his timing and his spot and blast a beautiful goal from outside the top of the 18-yard box to the upper corner of the goal to give Orlando City the first half lead.
- Dom Dwyer - Dwyer came in and did what Dwyer does. He was like a pogo stick bouncing around the pitch and drawing plenty of attention from Atlanta United defenders. I said in my match preview that my hope is that Dwyer can serve as something of a mentor to some of the younger strikers on the team. And I'm going to go ahead and give Dwyer's presence a lot of credit for the improved play we saw from Cyle Larin yesterday. I can't put my finger exactly on the reason--perhaps it's as simple as Dwyer drawing a lot of focus from the defense and freeing Larin up to move around the pitch without dragging multiple defenders with him. Or perhaps Dwyer gave some constructive advice or offered Larin some helpful tips in practice that sunk in for the lad because it was coming from another active player and not from a coach.
- Heart and Hustle - Atlanta had the late equalizer, and there are plenty of reasons to say why that was a fair result--they had a lot more shots, shots on goal, and dominated time of possession. But Orlando City did a few things right. The visitors actually won the stats that I consider to be often the best predictors of a match outcome. Orlando City won the battle of Duels (58 to 47), Tackles (20 to 13), and Clearances (23 to 7). I've harped on digging deeper into the stats to find the true story of a match, and most of the time the stats don't lie. But the wonderful thing about sports is that there's never any foolproof system for explaining the results of a game other than the scoreboard. And in this case, the scoreboard says the teams were even.
- Woeful Aim - Kaka's first half golazo was the exception on the day. Orlando City registered 10 shots on the match, but only one on target. That means they allowed Atlanta netminder Brad Guzan to get out of the match without having to make a single save on the day. Letting the opposing keeper have a boring day in the office is not going to cut it if this team expects to claw their way back into the playoff race. Shooting on target has got to improve.
- Bad Officiating - Now it's not unusual for fans to argue about a yellow card, but I am going to argue that a yellow card was given to the wrong player, at least based on the TV replay. In the 56th minute referee Allan Kelly issued a referee to Orlando City's Cristian Higuita, who was uncharacteristically playing UN peacekeeper for most of the match. In the sequence, the player that seemed to lose his cool and perhaps warrant a yellow was Dom Dwyer, but he did not get a card at all. Of course, watching from the lens of a TV camera mounted up in the stadium is different from being down in the middle of the pitch, so it's possible that Higuita did or said something worthy of a card. But I thought surely when the yellow came out it was going to be shown to Dom and not Cristian.
- Costly Defensive Lapses - It's easy for a fan to point fingers, and I really don't feel good about criticizing professional athletes because for all their flaws on the pitch they show a helluva lot more skill than I ever had. Having said that, I'm a bit distressed that certain players seem prone to making repeated mistakes of judgement or lapses in attentiveness that wind up costing us goals. In the first two seasons you could take your pick of anyone across the back line almost that was prone to giving up easy goals because they lost track of a player. This year we are doing better, but the defense seems like it's still good almost once per game for leaving a dangerous opposing attacker unmarked and letting them have a great shot on goal. Such was the case yesterday when Hector Villalba got away from everyone to receive a pass when no defenders were within ten yards of him. I had predicted Atlanta would score two goals, so I suppose I should be glad that we only gave up the one. However, the fan in me cannot condone such abject failure any time it happens.
What were your thoughts on the match--do you think Dom Dwyer's debut lived up to expectations? Are there any players currently in the usual starting rotation that you think the team should jettison and replace as dead wood? Do you believe Orlando City can right the ship and get back into playoff contention this year, or are you already looking toward 2018? Let me know in the comments below!