In some games, some narratives are too easy to adopt. Tonight’s game between Orlando City and New York City is one of those games. The chains that fetter the two clubs grew heavier when the Lions chose New York City’s inaugural manager Jason Kreis to replace their own inaugural coach, Adrian Heath.
Both teams are now locked into the playoff chase. New York City led the Eastern Conference for much of the year, before falling behind a surging Toronto FC. Meanwhile, Kreis has revived a struggling Orlando and has them within a point of the playoffs. With Toronto losing and DC United winning, both teams sought all three points.
Orlando got them.
Not that New York City weren’t game. They were. The difference was a brace of Kaká goals — incredibly, his first for Orlando.
For as long as the Blues have played games, their perpetual weakness is their back line. Whether it’s set pieces or the run of play, New York City’s sub-par defense forces goalkeeper Josh Saunders to rely on his declining athleticism to bail that defense out. In turn, that defense overcompensates, resulting in persistent miscommunication between Saunders and his back line.
This was tonight’s starting lineup:
Look at the back four. You’ve got a left back and three center backs. Hernandez isn’t normally comfortable as a full back, and it shows. Instead of making overlapping runs with Stiven Mendoza, as RJ Allen would, Hernandez mostly stays home. That leaves Mendoza on an island, and forces him to drop deep to receive the ball.
Meanwhile, Hernandez’s natural position is taken up by Jefferson Mena, who’s had a fairly mediocre career with the Blues. Mena looks like he’d be a fantastic center back, but he’s prone to losing focus.
That’s precisely what happened with Orlando’s first goal. A fast counter attack ended with the Brazilian legend running straight at Mena, who proceeded to panic. Kaká then simply rounded Mena like they were on the practice field. Saunders saved the shot, but could do nothing about the rebound.
The Blues went into halftime trailing, but could be confident about their prospects. That confidence paid off in the second half. Frank Lampard capped a Blues attack with a shot. Orlando’s keeper, Joe Bendik managed to save the shot. But like Saunders earlier, he couldn’t do anything about the rebound, which the opportunistic Mendoza tapped into the open goal.
But just as the Blues were growing into the game, disaster struck. In the 63rd minute, defender Maxime Chanot attempted to defend Kaká. His attempts resulted in him taking down Orlando’s star, just inside the penalty area. The resulting penalty gave the Lions a lead they wouldn’t surrender.
It nearly could’ve been worse. In the 70th minute, Orlando’s Kevin Molino found himself on a breakaway. He dashed forward; Saunders dove desperately, trying to grab the ball, failed. The net was open. Molino shot.
Out of nowhere, Blues defender Matarrita somehow nudged the ball away from the goalmouth. He crashed into the goalpost, then rolled over, doubled & twisted in agony.
Despite manager Patrick Vieira’s offensive subs - Taylor, Shelton, and Harrison - New York City couldn’t get a second tying goal.
The loss means that the Blues continue trailing Toronto. Beyond that, New York City also has the Red Bulls and the Union right along side them; they lead both of those teams by a single point.
For most of this season, the Blues have balanced their awful-to-mediocre home form with a spectacular road form, the best in the league. But in their last four road games, they’re 0-2-2. Could it be that their sparkling road performance is abandoning them?
Probably not. It’s probably more likely that the Blues are simply coming down to earth a bit. With seven games to go, we’re probably finally seeing this team’s true level. While it’s still possible that New York City could miss the playoffs, it’s more likely that the Blues are now playing for some version of home-field advantage, and a precious playoff bye.
Next up for the Blues: a rare Thursday night home game against DC United, which will see former New York City striker Patrick Mullins return to Yankee Stadium.