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Three takeways from Orlando City’s loss to Real Salt Lake

Orlando City forward Nani (17) gets between Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird (17) and midfielder Kyle Beckerman (5) and heads the ball during the Lions' loss Saturday. (Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports)

SANDY, Utah — Orlando City lost 2-1 to Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday night. It’s the second time this season the Lions (2-3-2, 8 points) have followed a win with a loss. Here are three takeaways from the match:

Dwyer, Nani needed

Orlando City has scored 11 goals so far this season and 10 of them have been with both Dom Dwyer and Nani on the pitch. The team needs its two star designated players, and both of them came off the bench Saturday night.

This is not the same conversation as the one surrounding second-year forward Chris Mueller. He’s shown a great ability to impact the game off the bench. Orlando City hasn’t shown its capable of scoring goals without Dwyer and Nani on the field to make plays and create opportunities for everyone else.

The one goal Orlando City has scored this season without Dwyer and Nani on the pitch came from Mueller, who scored off a free kick in the season opener.

Against Real Salt Lake, Dwyer won the free kick that Nani put away. Against the Rapids, Nani had two goals and although Dwyer didn’t score, Tesho Akindele doesn’t get his goal unless Dwyer forces Tim Howard to make a tough save.

Coach James O’Connor said Nani and Dwyer not starting was about managing the two players. The game was played at altitude after a five-hour flight from Orlando. Nani, 32, has a lot of miles on his legs and Dwyer has dealt with his fair share of injuries. O’Connor’s answers regarding why Nani and Dwyer didn’t start make sense from a “keep your best players healthy” perspective.

But Orlando City simply plays better with its star designated players. The schedule is about to get rough. In May, the Lions have a three-game week that includes away matches against Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders. If Dwyer and Nani are being saved for those games — and every indication is being given that minutes are being managed ahead of the condensed schedule — then O’Connor is risking missing out on early-season points to make sure his stars are fresh for when Orlando City typically wilts: summer.

“The frustration point is the fact that our decision-making at key moments is not where it needs to be,” O’Connor said. “I think that’s leading to goals, which means we’re chasing the game. I think that’s the biggest frustration for all of us. The players have tried exceptionally hard. I mean, you look at the journey, dealing with altitude, you look the players played at, they deserve enormous credit and we deserved something from it.”

He added, “But again, we can’t say that we deserve something from when we keep gifting teams goals. We need to stop doing that.”

Chasing games

Of course, Orlando City leaks goals even with Dwyer and Nani on the pitch. Orlando City is constantly playing from behind.

Orlando City has been down 2-0 four times in seven matches this season. The Lions have kept one clean sheet — at Red Bull Arena, of all places — and fell behind 1-0 to the Colorado Rapids. City has scored the first goal twice this season.

“That’s been our whole season,” Johnson said with a wry smile. “We’ve been chasing games. We’re good at that. We’re good at being aggressive and pressing and Dom and Nani’s quality is no secret. When those come on the field, good things are going to happen for us. But it’s what happened before they got on the field that cost us the game.”

Again, there’s a lot of rotation happening among Orlando City’s defenders. Centerback Lamine Sané was left in Orlando for Saturday’s match and centerback trio of Kamal Miller, Shane O’Neill and Robin Jansson had a couple of moments of miscommunication, i.e., on the first goal that was conceded.

Yes, Ruan stepped over a ball RSL’s Sam Johnson lost, but no one else went anywhere near the ball before it was too late.

“Time, more work, I feel like we’re getting better every game,” Miller said when asked what goes in to fixing the miscues at the back. “It’s a new back line today. No Lamine, a big piece in the back line, so it’s tough out there, but we could have done a lot better with those goals, yeah.”

Sané is injury-prone. But he’s an experienced defender and Orlando City likely could have used him Saturday.

It’s almost the same issue every match. A critical mistake or lapse in judgement leads to a goal for the opposing team.

“It’s mistakes,” Johnson said. “It’s things that we circled during the week that they would try to do. They would try to hit some long balls and we knew how to deal with it and ultimately, for the most part, we do, but a couple of times in the game we don’t and it cost us points.”

The outlook

Orlando City is 2-3-2 (8 points) through seven matches. The Lions have — so far — shown they’re a better team than what was on display last season. If the playoffs started today, Orlando City would be in.

None that means anything this early in the season. Orlando City will be judged on how it plays after the calendar rolls to May. If the team can remain in contention deep into the season, the early-season successes and struggles won’t matter.

There are positives to look at early on. James O’Connor has shown a willingness to tinker with his lineups dating back to when he first arrived in Central Florida. He’ll tweak things as he sees fit and wants to see results regardless of who is on the pitch.

There was a “next man up” message in preseason training that is on display early in the season. However, some consistency would likely go a long way for the Lions, at least when it comes to defending.




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