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Three takeaways from Orlando City’s first match with James O’Connor at the helm

LOS ANGELES — Orlando City lost its ninth consecutive match Saturday night against LAFC. The 4-1 scoreline was the result of two late goals from LAFC after Orlando City had a would-be equalizer called back in the 73rd minute. Here are three things we learned from the match:

Orlando City’s defense is still a problem

The Lions’ defense has issues, but it’s a problem that could be fixed. Orlando City started off the match looking like a side ready to sit back and take its chances on the counter-attack. For a while, it worked. Orlando City generated most of its early chances on the counter and the club’s collective defending looked much stronger.

Then centerback and captain Jonathan Spector suffered what appeared to be a hamstring injury.

Once Spector went down, things went sideways. The back line was organized with Spector running the show.

LAFC forward Adama Diomandé (the guy with nine goals in seven appearances) was practically left by himself in the penalty area after Orlando City goalkeeper Joe Bendik punched away a shot from Latif Blessing. Chris Schuler, who came on for Spector, stepped away from Diomandé and gestured toward the Norwegian striker.

Centerback Amro Tarek stepped up to Diomandé … then left him unmarked near the six-yard box.

“You know [Spector is] a leader back there,” Lions midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “Very experienced guy. Certainly whenever you have to make a first-half sub, it always takes a little bit to adjust, but I thought Schuler did OK.”

That’s just one example, but Orlando City’s back line had plenty of hiccups last night. Attacking players with pace are still a massive problem for this club (Latif Blessing got the better of RJ Allen all night) and an old issue of defending set pieces reared its ugly head.

“We need to defend better than that,” said new coach James O’Connor. “The two goals at the end, one from a corner and then one from a mistake, that shouldn’t be happening.”

There are reasons to be encouraged

Orlando City was one – controversial – offside call away from a 2-2 match in the 73rd minute.

LAFC improved to second place in the Western Conference with Saturday night’s win. The Lions had their chances against one of the best clubs in MLS.

“Close” isn’t much consolation during a nine-match losing skid, but Orlando City didn’t phone this match in. O’Connor’s crew came into the match thinking of three points and that mentality is important.

“To be fair to the players, second half, I thought there was a lot of fight,” O’Connor said. “I thought, second half, we come out with some resolve. We started to get after the game. We got a goal back.”

After the second goal was called back, O’Connor said Orlando City’s reaction needed to be stronger.

“I think when you look at the quality of players going forward, we certainly have players who can cause problems, but defensively, we need to be much sharper,” he said. “The goals we gave away were really poor goals.”

O’Connor wants to change this club’s mentality, first and foremost. The Lions lack confidence, but there were flashes of fire Saturday night in front of a hostile announced crowd of 22,000 at Banc of California Stadium.

“You try to encourage the players to maintain belief,” O’Connor said. “You try to encourage them to strengthen their resolve, strengthen their mentality and look at the opportunities that we created. It would be different if we weren’t necessarily creating opportunities. We created a lot of opportunities there.”

Side note: Not every club in MLS is going to get a performance like LAFC’s Tyler Miller put together Saturday night. 

Players adapt to new roles

It could be a brand new season for some Orlando City players with O’Connor at the helm.

Donny Toia started at left back and played a full 90. It wasn’t because typical left back Mohamed El-Munir was injured. It was because El-Munir came on as an attacking sub.

He was deployed as a winger – he started on the left side and moved to the right – and caused some problems for LAFC. He forced Tyler Miller to make a save in the 90th minute and made a good case for why he should be used in the attack more often.

Justin Meram, who came on for Josué Colmán at the start of the second half, looked livelier than in recent matches, too. He was aggressive in his one-on-one defending and at times tried to bully LAFC midfielder Carlos Vela off the ball. His distribution was solid and the only reason why he didn’t have an assist on a match-tying goal was because the Video Assistant Referee determined he was offside.

Meram also had three recoveries and a tackle.

It just showed O’Connor is willing to do away with the established roles within in club in favor of trying some new things.

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