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Three things we learned from Orlando City’s 3-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes

Orlando City forward Chris Mueller (9) reacts after losing to the San Jose Earthquakes Saturday at Avaya Stadium. (Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

After ceding a goal in the third minute, Orlando City fell 3-0 in San Jose on Saturday night. It was the Lions’ second consecutive loss. Here are three things we learned from the match:

Lions suffer during slow start

From the opening whistle, San Jose overpowered Orlando City, pressing players high up the field and slipping attackers behind the back line to stretch the Lions thin. That pressure resulted in three goals within the first half hour of play, digging a deep hole that the team could never quite climb out.

Orlando City knew that San Jose would come out firing. The Earthquakes take more shots than any other team in the league, and they’re stocked with finishers Chris Wondolowski and Magnus Eriksson, who can convert those chances into goals.

“It was cheap to go down and give away three goals like that,” Orlando City forward Chris Mueller said. “Especially after the first one, I think we’ve just got to hone in and wake up a little bit and not concede two and three because then we just instantly put ourselves out of the game.”

After ceding the first goal, coach James O’Connor said his team played “shell-shocked” and couldn’t shake that stunned daze until halftime.

Part of the challenge was the San Jose method of man marking, forcing individual battles on defense rather than spreading into a zoned structure.

This style disrupted the ability of Orlando City to move the ball effectively, particularly through the midfield, where passing lanes were often clogged to force turnovers. Orlando City improved its passing in the second half, but the Lions still struggled to push the ball through to the attacking third, placing only a single shot on goal.

“I thought [in the] second half, it looked like we really wanted to commit to getting after things,” O’Connor said. “First half, that was lacking. I don’t know if it was subconscious. I didn’t recognize that team first half. At this level, when you start the game like that, you’re going to get punished.”

Cristian Higuita returns to the pitch

After spending more than 15 games on the sidelines, Cristian Higuita made his first appearance in months during Saturday’s loss. The midfielder came on at the half, adding a jolt of energy to the Lions after a sluggish first half with limited movement through the midfield.

Higuita suffered a hamstring injury on June 1 and only returned to full-speed contact training in recent weeks. Although O’Connor said Higuita could not handle a full 90-minute workload, the coach said Saturday’s game offered an important opportunity to let him adjust to game speed.

“That was the one positive, to try to give Cristian some minutes,” O’Connor said. “Obviously he’s been out for a number of weeks, so it was great to be able to get him 45 minutes. That was probably the only positive we’re going to take out of tonight.”

Higuita’s return will be vital for Orlando City next week, with three midfielders — Carlos Ascues, Will Johnson and Sebas Méndez — called up to their national teams. Mauricio Pereyra also skipped the San Jose trip due to injury and if his health does not improve, Higuita will help to balance out the loss in the midfield as Orlando City hosts league titan LAFC.

O’Connor shoulders loss

The high press and man-to-man defense both shook up Orlando City early in the game, but O’Connor said the loss ran deeper than that. He felt that his team played with a lack of will power, something he hasn’t seen throughout this season.

Although the results — particularly in the team’s finishing — have been lacking throughout the season, the level of effort has been consistent from week to week. In San Jose, however, something was missing. Midfielder Uri Rosell noted his teammates were running, but they weren’t “running with purpose.”

The quality of the loss hung more heavily on the team than the final result on the scoreboard.

“I think the biggest thing for tonight is that we never get another 45 minutes like that,” O’Connor said. “To be fair to the players, that’s not something we’ve seen through the course of the year. I think this season we feel that the level of performance has been pretty consistent, but tonight we had a big blip there in the first half.”

In past weeks, O’Connor has spoken of losses feeling “gutting” — especially when they came from late goals at the end of otherwise solid performances, such as the team’s draws in Minnesota and Toronto. This loss, however, left the coach and his team despondent, dulled by the team’s low level of energy throughout the match.

While reflecting on this energy, O’Connor blamed himself, pointing to both lineup decisions and his preparation before the game.

“I don’t want it to be on the players,” O’Connor said. “I think I need to look at myself as well. I look at a couple of things I did tonight, I need to take responsibility for that. It’s not just the players. We definitely could and should have started the game better, but also I need to look at myself. I’ll accept responsibility.”

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