ORLANDO, Fla. — Before the team’s second rematch of the season with its rival Atlanta United on Friday, Orlando City stressed one key to the game — attacking early and often.
Forward Tesho Akindele stressed that the team needed to find the back of the net in the early minutes of the game to succeed. Coach James O’Connor repeatedly challenged his team to be “ruthless” in its finishing. The Lions’ fixation on finishing started early in the week, and it seemed to foreshadow the eventual downfall of the team in its third loss of the year to its rival to the north.
Orlando City pummeled the Atlanta United backline with a flurry of dangerous shots, but the Lions couldn’t find the back of the net during a 1-0 loss Friday at Exploria Stadium, remaining winless against their rival.
“I think we had enough chances to win two or three games,” Lions coach James O’Connor said. “When you look at the areas we got into tonight, the chance creation from inside the box… We can come out and say we were unlucky, but to me we were the architects of our own downfall.”
From end line to end line, the Lions (9-12-7) established a heightened level of aggression from the opening whistle. Robin Jansson picked up a foul for bodying a streaking Atlanta attacker to the ground. In his debut at Exploria Stadium, Mauricio Pereyra picked up four clean tackles in the first half alone that sent an Atlanta opponent to the ground.
Orlando City was active during the first half in front a spirited announced crowd of 23,014, with the Lions dominating on-ball possession while taking nine shots. All of those strikes were threatening — four were placed on target while the remaining five were blocked by the Atlanta (15-9-3) backline — but Orlando City couldn’t find a finish throughout the first half. Carlos Ascues saw two point blank chances in the box, only to fire both directly to Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s gut.
The Lions’ backline disrupted the Atlanta early, utilizing a high press to disrupt the Atlanta attack from where it typically builds out of the backline.. The Five Stripes took four shots in the first half, but the Lions managed to keep Josef Martínez silent throughout the half. Aware of the threat he brought, the Lions challenged midfielders like Eric Remedi and Darlington Nagbe to prevent the wingers from feeding their striker.
“We did a great job, to be honest, when you look at their threats,” O’Connor said. “The biggest disappointment at half time was that we weren’t winning. [It’s] a night when in another game you win four or five to nil. The hard thing for us is when you have that many chances first half that you don’t take, you need a really strong mentality second half.”
The clean sheet didn’t continue for long as Orlando City pressed further up the field to seek out its elusive first goal. In the 61st minute, after spending several minutes bunkered on defense, Atlanta United finally pounced on a breakaway in transition.
Ezequiel Barco powered up the middle of the field, splitting two defenders and making both step to him before tapping the ball back to an open Martínez. The reigning MVP immediately rifled a shot past Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe to take the lead.
“As the game got late, we were throwing bodies forward, trying to push for that goal,” Lions defender Kamal Miller. “We were pushing a lot of numbers forward and got too comfortable leaving ourselves one-v-one there. They just took their chance and that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Orlando City’s offense tried to respond to the ceded goal with a vengeance, setting up back-to-back chances in the box to no avail. Nani snagged a pass from the Atlanta backline, hesitating for a half second before lofting the ball to Ascues in the box, but the ball was deflected out of bounds. On the following play, Ascues nicked a backheel straight to Tesho Akindele, but his shot swung just wide of frame again.
The finishing drought got worse as the game continued, with the Lions desperately sending shots wide and high to take nine off-target shots in the second half. The team finished with 21 shots, one of its highest shooting performances of the year. Those shots came evenly from inside (11) and outside (10) the box, in every sort of scenario — one-on-ones, transition breakaways, long-shot volleys — but Orlando failed to score.
“It’s the last touch, of course,” Pereyra said. “We created a lot of chances today. We should work a lot on this because against Atlanta you need to score these chances. If not, they will score off one.”
The loss broke a four-game unbeaten streak for Orlando City, sinking the team slightly as it seeks its first playoff berth. Heading into the game, the Lions sat in a deadlock with Montreal and Toronto, who held 34 points.
Orlando City will travel west to play the San Jose Earthquakes Aug. 31.