Lions win! Lions win! The Lions win!
That was my immediate reaction after last night when Orlando City emerged with three huge road points from Red Bull Arena last night. The squad, which included several players getting their first start for Orlando City, played a gritty, determined, energetic style of soccer that looked like what we saw in the first two weeks of the season and really did make last week’s utter disaster of a performance look like an exception and not a rule for this season. I know it’s early, and the rational person in me says that we have to wait until June 30 or July 31 to look at the record, look at the trend, and look at the standings to see where Orlando City might be headed for the season. But the fan in me is looking for any reason at all to have hope for this team, and they have given it to me as of last night.
Winning on the road in MLS is hard. A few years ago I went through all 22 seasons of MLS soccer history for all the teams in the league and calculated something like a 24% chance that teams will take all 3 points on the road. And Red Bull Arena may be the hardest place to play in the entire league. The TV crew made a claim last night I have yet to verify, but I have researched some numbers for this post. See those in the conclusion.
The defense retained its shape. Soccer gurus will always harp on about whether a team retains its shape or not. And far too often, Orlando City looks like 11 dots of color spinning out of control across the pitch for 90 minutes. Last night the defense (and the midfield) were tight and compact at the back, marking their assigned players and picking each other up to limit the number of times that anyone in a red top had an open look at Brian Rowe in goal.
Brian Rowe came up big early. Orlando City has a habit of giving up cheap goals early and giving up cheap goals late. In the 6th minute and again in the 12th minute, Brian Rowe came up with two big saves to keep the game scoreless. Orlando City eventually settled into the game, and they only allowed the Red Bulls four shots on goal all night. But the game could have been put out of reach without those two big early efforts.
Carlos Ascues with the Save of the Year. In the 76th minute, the Red Bulls had a wonderful look with a set piece deep in their attacking end on the right side. The ball came in and was headed to the wide open far side of the net when Carlos Ascues executed the most beautiful bicycle save you will see in MLS all season. He plucked the ball out of the air as it was destined to cross the goal and go into the back of the old onion bag, and he sent it flying deep back into the field of play and out of danger. See the earlier bullet about the defense retaining its shape to understand how this happened.
Surviving Seven Minutes of Stoppage. We saw a few weeks ago how the team switched off and lost focus during the long stoppage time minutes in Chicago. It’s clear they learned something from that as they continued pressing and delaying and killing the ball every chance they had during the long stoppage time at the end of the match last night.
Evidence of Lessons Learned. I said in the first two weeks I saw fewer mistakes and I saw a team that looked hungry to improve, so I was going to be looking for evidence that they are learning from their mistakes. The stand in the long stoppage time, the constant pressure and effort, the compact defensive shape, and the inspired goalkeeping play in the early minutes all hint that the team may indeed be learning from their mistakes.
Stupid, inexcusable fouls. When Sane plays well he is fun to watch. But that dude can make some real bonehead plays. He came close to getting himself a straight red on one of the most stupid plays I have ever seen a soccer player make. I have no doubt that he was going for the ball, but as he went for a high ball he did his best Rockettes impersonation and hung his big lanky leg with his big lanky boot out there and smacked a Red Bulls player right in the face. If you want to kick people in the face, go to the MMA. If you want to deflect a high ball in soccer, get your ass over to it and deflect it with your head. This is the kind of bonehead stupidity that way too many players on the Orlando City roster commit over and over and over again and have committed ever since 2015. They are not plays of good effort, they are evidence of stupid, lazy, bush league tactics. Sane was the culprit last night, but he is far from the only player and far from the worst offender of that kind of nonsense who has worn the purple since 2015. A lot of fans (and I point a finger at myself here as well) like to complain about PRO Referee seeming biased against Orlando City. They should not be, but our undisciplined, sloppy, clumsy, inelegant style of play makes it easy for referees to be more attentive for someone in purple to do something stupid. If we want to end that bias, the best way is to become one of the most clinical, efficient, disciplined, and tactical teams in MLS that is known for committing the fewest fouls in the league. Then that will change how PRO Referee calls our games. Because if you think waiting around for the referees to start calling the game without bias is the answer, then you are a bigger fool than I think you are already.
Chances dying without a shot. The official stat sheet shows that Orlando City managed only six shots on the night. They could have had at least nine or ten if they had taken advantage of balls that were inside the box. This team sometimes looks like lost puppies when they race into the box with the ball and then try to figure out what they are going to do. They would be better served to form a plan as they get to the edge of the 18-yard box and then just follow that through even if the keeper gets right in the way of where they plan to shoot. Sometimes keepers muff the ball and it dribbles in past them, or deflects to a teammate for an open shot. But put toe to leather and drive the damn ball at the back of the net, regardless of how many bodies are between you and the old onion bag.
Old habits die hard. This team was an ugly team to watch last year. Ugly and ineffective. This season they seem more effective, but they are still inelegant and sloppy—a work in progress I would call them. It’s not going to be pretty to watch these guys play, but it could be fun if they repeat performances like last night on a regular basis.
Just For Fun
I alluded to a claim that the TV broadcasters threw out last night. They said that since 2010 no team has won more points at home than the New York Red Bulls. They also said that the Red Bulls have scored four goals more times than they have been shut out at home. So I decided to run those numbers, and here’s what I found (all numbers reflect results against MLS teams for NYRB at Red Bull Arena since the start of the 2010 MLS season):
Wins at Red Bull Arena (RBA) - 110
4-goal games at RBA - 24
Held Scoreless at RBA - 21
It’s true I did not calculate the points for all the wins and draws, nor did I compare that to every other team in the league over that time, but it’s pretty clear that with 16-17 matches at home every season, Red Bull Arena creates a strong home pitch advantage for the team from New Jersey.
The team is back above the line, and with only New England and Cincinnati left to play this weekend, they cannot fall out of a playoff position this week. so I am back on the “probably renew” side of the ledger. That road win and those hard-won three points are evidence to me that this team may actually care about winning, and that’s very important to me.
What were your thoughts on the match last night? What players stood out to you as seeming like they are learning from past mistakes? Which players do you think still play too sloppy or make too many mistakes to be rewarded with more starts or more minutes? Let me know in the comments below!