Orlando City’s tumultuous – and mentally exhausting – season continued.
After a week off from MLS action, during which a new player joined the team and the Lions went through team-building exercises at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Orlando City still couldn’t find a winning formula.
The Lions are running out of time in 2018 to find their way – or to salvage any positive momentum moving into next season.
Orlando City continued its slide down the Eastern Conference table, falling 2-1 to Atlanta United in front of an announced crowd of 25,058 in Orlando City Stadium. During the match, United striker Josef Martinez broke the MLS record for goals scored in a single season (28).
With the loss, Orlando City (7-16-2, 23 points) falls to the bottom of the Eastern Conference table.
“I think, when you look at the level of the performance, I think it wasn’t good enough,” said Orlando City coach James O’Connor. “We need to be honest with ourselves. We can point to it, we can say we had some key players missing, but again, for me, they’re excuses.
“For what we want to get to and where we’re going to get to, we need levels of performance that are higher. That’s something that we definitely need to get more.
“I think when you look the second half, especially, we get back in it at 1-1, my hope is that we’re going to go on and we’re going to try to really make it difficult for them and we’re going to try to go and garner some momentum and the complete opposite happened.”
Atlanta United opened the scoring in the 21st minute thanks to an error by Orlando City goalkeeper Joe Bendik, who only recently returned to the starting XI after he was benched in favor of Earl Edwards Jr. Bendik couldn’t handle a free kick from Atlanta’s Ezequiel Barco and centerback Leandro González Pirez pounced on the rebound to give the Five Stripes an early lead.
Orlando City didn’t wilt.
After Lions left back PC intercepted a pass from Atlanta right back Julian Gressel, the ball eventually made its way to defensive midfielder Carlos Ascues, who was making his debut for the Lions. His pass found rookie winger Chris Mueller near the penalty area and Mueller played the ball in for Will Johnson.
Johnson back-heeled it to right back Scott Sutter and the passing stopped. Sutter sent a laser past United goalkeeper Brad Guzan to level the match 1-1 in the 39th minute.
“It was one of my better goals I’ve scored in my career,” Sutter said. “It all led to nothing, unfortunately.”
It was a rare chance for Orlando City in the first half. The Five Stripes dominated possession (59.9 percent) and put six shots on frame. Still, the Lions put pressure on Atlanta United when they could and put two shots on frame in the first 45 minutes.
“It’s been a bit brutal, if I’m honest,” Sutter said. “The amount we invest into the games and the energy and the results just aren’t coming. I think we’re really, really trying, but I don’t think it was good enough. James let us know that at the end of the game. I think we just need to improve every which way.”
It was more of the same in the second half, though during the final 45 minutes, Martinez wouldn’t be denied after a relatively quiet first half.
Gressel got by PC and sent a through ball to Martinez, who worked his way into the penalty area, passed centerback Jonathan Spector and chipped the ball over Bendik, who had gone to ground trying to stop Martinez. The goal in the 74th minute was the match-winner and helped Martinez break the MLS single-season scoring record.
Atlanta United controlled more of the possession in the second half (64.9 percent) and Orlando City mustered just two shots. Both were on target.
“They pinned us in and they were keeping the ball. For us, it needs to be better,” O’Connor said. “We were giving the ball away in needless areas and our decision-making was really poor. We’ve got guys that are better than they showed tonight. It was really disappointing.”
Orlando City will keep trying to snap out of its slump when the Lions host the Philadelphia Union Sept. 1 at Orlando City Stadium.
“More than just the physical toll, the mental toll… I mean you want to play,” Sutter said. “We’re working hard and we’re trying to improve and this should be the icing on the cake, the game and the results and the victories and the coming back into the locker room after a win. I mean, there’s no better feeling in football.
“We just haven’t had enough of that this season and it’s really, really getting me down. It’s getting the whole team down. It’s just disappointing. It affects your whole life. When you’re winning, everything’s great. Football’s only great when you play and when you win. If you don’t play, you’re not happy. If you don’t win, you’re not happy.”