PORTLAND, Ore. — Less than a week after his first day in an Orlando City kit, forward Robinho entered the starting lineup and brought a spark of intensity for the Lions in Providence Park.
Thursday’s game against Portland came exactly one week after the team’s trade with the Columbus Crew for Robinho was announced. He suited up in purple for training for the first time on July 12, and after only three training sessions with his new team, he boarded a plane and headed cross country to start in his first game for Orlando City.
Even in a short amount of time, Robinho said he felt that he has fit in easily with the Orlando City team.
“It was a dream come true getting here to such a famous team in the MLS and getting to play my first minutes,” Robinho said through a translator. “Everybody took me in very well and I’m grateful to everyone for that.”
The game against Portland was challenging for the Lions, who struggled to to string together meaningful periods of possession. With an injury to Alex De John forcing less experienced defenders to man the backline, Portland took full advantage of its offensive upper hand. The Timbers dominated possession for more than 60% of the game, consistently dispossessing the Orlando attackers as they attempted to move through the midfield towards goal.
“In my mind, in my head I’m thinking that when I get the ball, I’m gonna hold the ball and keep the ball for the team,” forward Santiago Patiño said. “But when it happens, it’s difficult. It was a difficult environment, a difficult field.”
With only a handful of opportunities to strike on goal, every possession became critical for the Orlando attackers to capitalize. Robinho was well aware of that in the 44th minute, when he streaked down the right flank to take defender Zarek Valentin head-on.
Once again, Valentin dispossessed Robinho, seemingly knocking the ball out of bounds. But as Valentin went to scoop the ball up for a throw-in before the referee blew his whistle, Robinho darted around the defender, poked the ball away and broke off down the pitch. The heads-up play led to an immediate cross, which Patiño buried for the team’s sole goal of the 1-1 draw.
“There weren’t that many chances so we had to be focused,” Robinho said. “We had to be expecting that the chance was gonna come.
“I just saw him decelerating a little bit, and I knew that I could get to the ball if I didn’t give up.”
With star forward Nani staying home in Orlando for the match, the team’s biggest question heading into the game centered around who would step up to create on the offensive end. Robinho provided one answer, filling in a role that coach James O’Connor hoped he would fit into on the team.
Now, the coach’s main focus will be balancing Robinho’s playing time in order to maximize his effectiveness, especially as a young player. At 24 years old, the forward brings energy to the attack, particularly in his ability to match players in one-on-one situations.
The rookie played for 65 minutes in his first start with the Lions. But with another home game looming on the opposite coast only three days later, O’Connor will continue to rotate to avoid overloading the young forward.
“We’re going to have to be careful with him,” O’Connor said. “He hasn’t played a whole lot of football, and he just had a break, so it was important that we were able to get some minutes into him. He’s got great quality and he showed it.”