Orlando City grinded out a 1-1 draw in its first road match of the season against Sporting Kansas City. The match was highlighted by Nani’s show-stopping backheel equalizer, which came after the Lions’ first two goals of the match were waved away for offside calls.
Here are three things we learned from the match:
Protagonism on the road
Last season, Orlando City fans quickly became accustomed to coach Oscar Pareja’s mantra of convincing his players to see themselves as the protagonists of every match. Friday’s performance highlighted how this mentality transformed the way the Lions approach matches on the road.
It’s fairly common for teams to take a more reserved approach during road matches, focusing on defending and limiting offensive risks to focus on securing the single point of a draw.
But the Lions did the opposite of that against Sporting Kansas City — playing through the back, attacking the game directly through the midfield and holding a high press for long periods of play.
At times, this led to unnecessary risks and mistakes. The Kansas City press often put the backline under pressure, but the Lions relied on short, quick passes to move through the pressure.
This ultimately led to Kansas City’s goal — a muffed pass from keeper Pedro Gallese to centerback Antonio Carlos resulted in a turnover that Gianluca Busio immediately converted into a goal.
“That probably was out of our personality, the way we do things and the belief in our model,” Pareja said. “We made some mistakes due to the risk that we play. But we are committed with this way to play it.”
But this aggressive approach also benefitted the Lions, who outpossessed (60%) and outshot (11-9) Kansas City.
This pressure allowed the Lions to counter after falling down a goal, scrapping back to earn a point by maintaining offensive structure.
“I think the team knows how to break out the pressure,” midfielder Andrés Perea said.
Finishing still work in progress
Chance creation and finishing were the two main concerns for the Lions after their scoreless home opener against Atlanta United.
The lack of the final finishing touch is fairly typical in a season opener as players readjust to the pace of the game and new teammates, such as striker Pato, who hadn’t played a match in over six months. With Pato recovering from an injury, Orlando City relied more on its wingers to create chances against SKC.
The game resulted in the Lions’ first goal of the season — a backheel beauty from Nani — but the team came close to netting three goals in the match after openers from Benji Michel and Andrés Perea were called back for offside.
Perea said it was frustrating to have his goal — which would have been the first of his MLS career — called back after initially sharing a happy celebration with teammates.
Those offside calls reflected how close Orlando City is to sparking a high-scoring attack. Michel and Perea were both only a step too far beyond the backline on their runs. Striker Tesho Akindele and winger Chris Mueller similarly saw chances barely blocked by the Kansas City keeper.
“We’re creating good opportunities, we’re getting into dangerous positions, but we’re just lacking that little bit of final conviction in our finishing,” Perea said.
Left back position secure
Orlando City fans were bolstered by a new sight ahead of Friday’s match — João Moutinho’s nameplate in the locker room and on the available substitute list for the first time since Aug. 29.
The starting left back was sidelined most of the 2020 regular season with a hip and groin injury, which eventually required surgery during the offseason in December. Moutinho’s surgeon gave a four to six month prognosis for Moutinho’s recovery time, placing his expected return to the field anywhere from mid-April to mid-June.
Pareja previously said Moutinho’s recovery was running smoothly on schedule. His selection to travel with the team and feature as a potential alternate shows the dynamic defender is even closer to returning to the pitch.
In the meantime, however, backup Kyle Smith quickly transformed the left back position into his own.
Typically playing as a backup right back, Smith steadily filled in the position on the left flank for the first two matches of the year. Nicknamed ‘El Soldado’ — which means ‘The Soldier’ in English — by Pareja, Smith has displayed a keen dedication as a versatile support player for the Lions.
Despite earning an early yellow card in Kansas City, Smith tempered a physical playing style to stay in the game while dampening a potent attack. Most importantly, Smith made the run that sparked the Lions’ equalizer.
Continuing to display his attacking roots as a converted striker, Smith blew through a space between Kansas City’s midfield and defensive lines, cutting back a cross to create a chance for both Mueller and Nani.
Moutinho will always be a fan favorite and a key player for the Lions. But with Smith continuing to shine at left back, the team has no need to rush his recovery.