HARRISON, N.J. — Orlando City midfielder Sacha Kljestan, back in the place where he became a household name in MLS, delivered a much-needed win for the Lions.
Kljestan, who until last season played for the New York Red Bulls, scored the match-winning goal in the 73rd minute, breaking a scoreless deadlock and lifting Orlando City to a 1-0 victory over a depleted New York Red Bulls side at Red Bull Arena.
It was the first win of the season for Orlando City (1-1-2, 5 points), who entered the match looking to shake a poor performance during a 3-1 loss to the Montreal Impact last week. Before Orlando City’s match against the Red Bulls, a veteran leader stepped up to rally the team.
“This was a much-needed three points, but a much-needed performance, also” Kljestan said. “I think, as a team, we played really well.
“To be honest, earlier today, Nani brought the group together, just the players, and he gave us a good speech about mentality and how we needed to almost grind things out at this point and win ugly. I thought that part of our performances was really good. Defensively, we were super organized. We had guys in the back putting their bodies on the line.”
The sequence that led to the match-winning goal was set up by star striker Dom Dwyer, who held off a Red Bulls defender, received a long ball and found left back João Moutinho. Moutinho sent a cross into the penalty area and Kljestan finished the sequence to give the Lions the lead.
The veteran midfielder was hit with a chorus of boos after the goal, which he addressed after the match.
“Fair enough,” Kljestan said. “They paid their money to come here and support their team and, obviously, they weren’t happy that I scored. What I’ll say is, from my standpoint, when I played for the Red Bulls, I loved playing here. I gave everything I had every day to make this a winning club and I enjoyed every moment of it.
“I think some of the fans hold a little against me because I missed a couple of penalties in big moments for this club and that’s part of football and that part sucks. It sucks that I missed those big plays in big moments and I wasn’t able to carry this team to MLS Cup. I just hope they know that I gave everything I had when I played for this club and I loved every minute of it.”
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) March 24, 2019
Orlando City’s starting XI featured a group of players getting their first starts of the season. Moutinho, midfielder Uri Rosell, centerback Robin Jansson – who was signed two weeks ago – and rookie forward Santiago Patiño all earned their first starts.
Rosell, Moutinho and Jansson also got their first minutes of the season in Saturday’s match.
A notable exception to the starting XI was Dwyer, who came into Saturday’s match leading Orlando City with two goals. A club spokesman told Pro Soccer USA the club is managing Dwyer’s minutes. He missed the entire preseason and was not expected to play as much as he has early in the season, but he has seen increased use due to the injury of forward Tesho Akindele.
Dwyer came on for Patiño in the 60th minute.
“I think we have to try to manage [Dwyer’s] minutes,” Orlando City head coach James O’Connor said. “I think, when you look at it, he’s missed, obviously parts of preseason. Up ’til now, he played a lot more minutes that we thought, when you look at Chicago and Montreal, so we want to make sure we look after Dom, because he’s such a key figure for us.”
Centerback Lamine Sané made his first appearance of the season, replacing injured Alex De John in the 66th minute. Sané is another player coming off an injury whose minutes O’Connor is hoping to manage.
Orlando City had two solid chances in the first half and didn’t capitalize on either one. Still, they consistently managed to turn away the Red Bulls. Goalkeeper Brian Rowe came up with a save in the sixth minute to keep the Lions from falling behind early.
Klejstan nearly opened the scoring in the 43rd minute after he was found in the penalty area by Nani, but his shot was blocked.
“Look, I thought there was a lot of positives tonight,” O’Connor said. “I think the manner of the performance was very good. I think mentality was excellent. I think the chance creation we had was very good. I think we were unlucky, we felt at halftime unlucky not to come in leading. I think we can be very, very pleased.
“I’m really pleased for the players, because like I said, I think the identify of this group can’t be the game last week. When I look at the performances that we’ve had previously, they were all very encouraging, and a lot of positives and the players get the reward tonight, which is great.”
The Red Bulls were playing without a group of starters called up to their national teams and midfielder Florian Valot, who tore his right ACL. Left back Connor Lade also went down with an injury early in the match.
New York nearly leveled the match in the 76th minute. A header off a free kick beat Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe, but Ascues managed to clear the ball off the line to preserve the lead.
The Lions return to Orlando City Stadium next week to face D.C. United on Sunday. It’s the first of back-to-back home matches for Orlando City, with the team hosting the Colorado Rapids on April 6.
“I just think there was a lot of people who wanted to nail us for one performance,” O’Connor said. “I think the players have shown tonight the quality and that it wasn’t necessarily just a one-off game, because we feel as that’s been coming with the level of performances that we’ve had.”