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Orlando City takes step in the right direction with win over Vancouver

Orlando City forward Nani (17) celebrates after scoring a goal during the second half against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Orlando City Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City (3-3-2, 11 points) defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps (1-5-2, 5 points) 1-0 at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday. Here are three takeaways from the match:

O’Connor pleased with team progress

Orlando City coach James O’Connor officially surpassed his 2018 win total with Saturday’s victory. It’s early in the season, but this Orlando City squad looks different and much-improved from the 17-game sample size O’Connor put together in his first half-season.

Some of that comes from the team’s new players. Orlando City’s starting XI on Saturday featured six players who weren’t in Central Florida last season. The new players have been paying dividends for Orlando City early in the season. 

The mentality O’Connor has spoken about since the start of preseason training has been on full display so far. The 2018 Lions didn’t have any 1-0 victories. This year’s team has two. Orlando City kept two clean sheets in league play last season. The 2019 Lions have two clean sheets through eight league matches.

Problems from last season are still there. Orlando City still gives up head-scratching goals and is still exposed far too often in transition. But the overall malaise that permeated this club in the later stages of last season is gone.

That said, Orlando City’s upcoming schedule is brutal. At New York, home against Toronto, at Atlanta, at Seattle, home against Cincinnati and then home against the LA Galaxy. The Lions’ culture is about to be thoroughly tested.

O’Connor praised the team’s “decent enough” start. 

“I think the most pleasing aspect, like I’ve said, is when you look at the culture that we’re trying to generate, we’re seeing some signs that we’re definitely going in the right direction,” O’Connor said. “We’re starting to get some of the aspects of that we want, but the people that know me know that I never stop. So, we’re certainly not going to be stopping.”

Subs provide a jolt

Whether certain players should be starting or not, the timing of Orlando City’s substitutions has yielded results so far this season.

Orlando City has gotten four goals and four assists from players who have come on as substitutes. Kljestan was a player who started the first seven matches of the season and came on in the 76th minute of Saturday’s match and provided a lift.

Would-be starters coming off the bench and making an impact has become a running theme so far this season.

“The most pleasing aspect for me as a coach is that we’ve got players that will accept the decision and then will be intentional about trying to go and impact the game,” O’Connor said. “Sacha showed tremendous maturity with the way he handled it, the way he came on.”

Orlando City had a tough time breaking down Vancouver’s defense Saturday. The Lions came out in an attacking 4-3-3 with firepower on the pitch and had nothing to show for it, and Kljestan spent his time on the bench analyzing the game.

“I think watching from the bench, I think that we were playing a little too slow with the ball throughout the course of the game,” Kljestan said. “Anytime the ball turned over I think our best option would have been to go straight to goal because as soon as you slow it down and make one, two, three passes they got their whole 11 guys behind the ball and then it becomes difficult to break down.

“The things I tried to mention to the guys at halftime were continuing to work the ball on the wing, try to create 2-v-1s or 3-v-2s and then try to get crosses in the box but we needed more than just [striker] Dom [Dwyer] in the box.”

When right back Ruan sent in the cross for the match-winning goal, Kljestan was one of four players in the penalty area for Orlando City.

“Someone called me ‘fresh legs’ today and I don’t think I’ve ever been called fresh legs,” Kljestan said with a smile.

Méndez lauded for maturity, talent 

Sebas Méndez looks like the real deal. The defensive midfielder had a 92.8 percent passing accuracy on Saturday and completed 69 passes, second only to holding midfielder Uri Rosell. Méndez also had two tackles, three interceptions and eight recoveries.

The 21-year-old Ecuadorian international earned high praise from O’Connor.

“He’s someone I believe will have an outstanding career. I think he will definitely go on and achieve big things,” O’Connor said.

“He showed quite a bit of maturity for somebody so young. The understanding of ‘OK, I don’t need to force the ball centrally. I need to be patient, I need to rotate the ball and then wait for gaps to open up.’ I think he’s a very intelligent footballer.”

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