Cyle Larin's goal in the seventh minute was the difference as Orlando City won their first game of the season, beating New York City 1-0 in an ugly, physical game. The Blues controlled the game wire to wire, but were incredibly wasteful in front of goal before 24,597 in a frigid Yankee Stadium.
For the second straight game, manager Patrick Vieira rolled out the team in a distinctive W-M. There were some changes; Andoni Iraola made his first start of the season at right back, addressing the team's deficiencies there. Meanwhile, fan favorite Kwadwo Poku finally made the 18-man roster, although he didn't see any playing time.
However, it was Larin who drew the first and only blood of the game. The Canadian starlet scored for the third time in three games, taking the entire New York City defense by surprise. Rafael Ramos chased down a long ball down the right side, then calmly chipped a pass into the goal mouth, taking Larin, who wasn't exactly expecting the cross, by surprise. The resulting goal, scored essentially by Larin's face, slipped softly in, like a thief in the night.
Despite giving up the goal, the Blues didn't waste any time trying to regain the initiative. They poured numbers into Orlando's goal time and again, only to be denied just as often by an enterprising and resolute Lions defense. Manager Patrick Vieira made adjustments at the half, withdrawing winger Khiry Shelton for Stiven Mendoza.
The change saw New York City control the ball for a Barcelona-esque 71% of the time, yet they couldn't convert that possession into one goal, let alone two or three. As stoppage time neared, Mendoza unleashed a wicked shot which cracked off the post. Four minutes of stoppage time came and went, and still the Blues had the ball. One last corner came and went, the legendary Andrea Pirlo setting the Blues up with a golden delivery -- but defender Ronald Matarrita blazed the ball over the bar.
Shortly thereafter, the whistle blew for the last time. The curtain fell; the crowd headed, slowly, dejectedly, to the exits.
Mendoza probably starts over Shelton next game. Shelton had an excellent first game of the season, and a fairly ordinary second game. Tonight? Not so much; he was ineffective. Though he regularly torched his markers, his decision-making with the ball probably cost New York City a number of scoring opportunities that may have given them a draw, if not all three points.
In contrast, Stiven Mendoza was consistently dangerous for the Blues in the second half. Though Orlando did a creditable job of marking him, his effort off the post in the 73rd minute was the closest New York City got to scoring. In post game remarks, midfielder Mix Diskerud marvelled at how quickly Mendoza had accustomed himself to the league's pace and flow. Given all this, Mendoza's set to be an instrumental part of the team this season.
The Blues' identity is becoming clear. Last year, it was unclear just what kind of team Jason Kreis was building. Was it going to be a more talented version of his Real Salt Lake teams? Or something else? That question was never answered, and by the time Kreis seemed to figure it out, mid-season additions like Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard destroyed whatever chemistry Kreis had formulated.
Vieira suffers from no self-doubt here. He knows what he wants to do â craft a ferociously attacking team that will harass opposing defenses from the first through the 90th minutes. Is the defense weak? Sure; it's getting stronger, and will likely be better with the addition of a healthy Andoni Iraola on the right. But that's not where the team's strengths lie. They lie in attack, beginning with Pirlo deep in the midfield, coursing through a much more assured Diskerud in the middle, and deployed by Villa, Taylor, Mendoza, and others up front. The result is a much more watchable team than last year's, and if they can fix their deficiencies on defense - always a question with this team - they'll likely challenge for the playoffs this year. They certainly have the mentality for it.
Whither Lampard? The English midfielder came down with his now-familiar gastrocnemius injury the week before the season began. While he's been rehabbing in the gym, Lampard has been curiously absent from the team. It's safe â and sad â to say that he's been the biggest designated player bust in MLS history. We won't go into the history here. It's what it is to this point.
Here's the thing: it's really hard to see where Lampard fits in to what Vieira is building here. Pirlo, in vast contrast to last season, looks highly comfortable in his traditional midfield role â so comfortable that he's actually making quality defensive plays. Diskerud is conducting the midfield centrally with aplomb. Bravo provides Pirlo with defensive cover. McNamara and, once he gets up to speed, Poku, fill out the midfield.
So what does Lampard give you that none of these other players do? He's injury prone, he's not fast enough anymore (he never was fast to begin with), and he's not a scoring threat. So why would you play him, let alone start him?
Don't be surprised if Lampard either retires or gets moved on here before the main MLS window closes in May. Not that it's a question of money â with CFG, it never will be â but New York City simply can't afford to have $6 million sitting idle. That's serious money that can go to another striker, for instance, or be used to sign Pirlo's replacement in a year. At this point, Lampard is a sunk cost; the longer New York City try to make something of it, the more expensive it gets. It's time for them to cut Lampard loose.
NEXT UP: The New England Revolution, at home. That game is Saturday, March 26, at 3 PM, likely on YES. The Blues will be going for their second victory of the year.