ORLANDO, Fla. — An early goal from Tesho Akindele propelled Orlando City to a 1-0 victory over Sporting KC on Wednesday night, earning the team three much-needed points.
The Lions (9-11-6, 33 points) threw themselves at the visiting goal from the opening whistle, peppering the ball in and around the Sporting KC (7-11-7, 28 points) box. Chris Mueller lofted a cross to a wide open Dom Dwyer on the backside in the third minute, but the designated player headed the ball into the dirt.
The Lions broke through in the 20th minute when Uri Rosell fed a ball cleanly into the box to Carlos Ascues, who slotted a pass directly across the face of the goal with his first touch. Dwyer lagged in front of the goal and sucked away the attention of two defenders as Tesho Akindele roared in from behind, hammering the ball into the net.
In a night dominated by fumbled passes and miscues on the attack, Akindele’s goal gave the team the lift it needed to secure an imperative win from a frustrating performance.
“I’m happy we won,” Akindele said. “Do I think we played the best we could have? No, but that’s kind of the mark of a good team. Sometimes you play good, sometimes you don’t, but good teams find a way to win.”
Akindele passed Nani as the team’s leading scorer this season with nine goals and set a personal record for most in a single season. The strike also gave the Lions a 1-0 lead in the opening 20 minutes of the half.
Although Orlando City took the early lead, it was a sloppy, physical night on both sides of the ball. In the first half, Nani went chest to chest with Felipe Gutiérrez, the pair knocking foreheads against each other until they were peeled apart by their teammates and hit with yellow cards.
Sporting KC dominated possession for large swaths of the game and once the team became entrenched in its defensive third, the Lions struggled to dig to attack due to errant passes. The visitors continued to win the possession battle in the second half, churning out 10 shots, but Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe swallowed the most dangerous strikes on frame.
“We spoke about the importance of trying to keep the ball, and your first half being your best pass,” coach James O’Connor said. “Too often in the second half, our first pass we didn’t get off to one of our guys, we just gave it away.”
Already relying on rookie Kamal Miller in the absence of João Moutinho, the backline also suffered another blow in the eighth minute, when defender Kyle Smith slammed into the Kansas City goalkeeper. Smith tumbled to the ground with a gash from his eye, exiting the game when the trainers couldn’t stop the bleeding. Smith later required six stitches.
Shane O’Neill rotated into the lineup at right back, and the defense took the blow in stride. Although he isn’t at his most comfortable playing outside back, O’Neill said that the entire backline leaned on the experience of centerbacks Lamine Sané and Robin Jansson to hold a crisp shape and avoid ceding goal-scoring opportunities in transition.
“You’ve got to stay compact, stay with the line, listen to the really experienced guys in the middle,” O’Neill said. “You can’t get sucked into the transition game, because it’s enticing to go forward, you want to go forward, but that means you’ve got to go back if you lose the ball, so it’s just finding that balance.”
In the 88th minute, Nani broke away in transition, scorching up the field with only two defenders between himself and the goal. He hesitated at the top of the box, pulling both defenders to feed Sacha Kljestan for a one-on-one shot on the keeper, but Kljestan’s chip bounced just a foot short of the goal line before it was cleared off.
Even without offensive momentum in the second half, Akindele’s goal was enough to lift the Lions to a 1-0 victory. The win will push Orlando City up to eighth place in the Eastern Conference table. The Lions are tied with seventh place Montreal in points, but the Impact own one more win and claim the last slot above the playoff cut line.