Two Halves Are Better Than One
I’ll admit I already had the headline written before the game even started. “Phoenix FC Makes Statement in Shock Win over Orlando.” I believed the team was able to pull off the upset. They were coming off the emotional high of a phenomenal home opener. Orlando was on the road. The team was healthy and complete with forward Darren Mackie being in the 18 and Anthony Odobai coming back from his red card suspension. The stage was set for an upset. The stage was set for a statement.
And for about 30 minutes it really felt like that was going to be the case. Forwards Diego Faria and Aaron King absolutely hassled the Orlando backline and keeper Jon Kempin. They were forced into many bad back passes and clearances, one of which resulted in Faria’s first goal in a Phoenix FC uniform. They took the game to Orlando. They made nothing easy. Something as simple as a ball out of the back became a dangerous situation and proposition for the Lions. The defense was solid. The passing and vision to find forwards was there. The league’s best team was cornered and on their toes for the first half hour. They were visibly flustered. They were clearly not expecting this kind of start from the expansion Wolves.
But in most cases, quality will win out. And it did. In the 35th minute, Sporting Kansas City loanee Dom Dwyer put a perfectly placed cross from Jamie Watson in the Phoenix net. Phoenix had a few other close shots after this, but once the Lions got the tying goal, it was time for them to play their brand of football. Coming out of the half, Orlando owned the pitch. They passed well. They created chances, and did all of the things that Phoenix had done in the first half well, including forcing a goal off of a mistake on the backline. The Long Tan goal in the 68th minute was a perfectly threaded pass by Kevin Molino through the backline that found Tan all alone. Tan would return the favor in the 87th by feeding Molino a pass in the box that he could finish. Orlando City played the half they were expected to play, and Phoenix was made to look almost amateur during it.
The 3-1 scoreline feels simultaneously unfair on both ends. It reflects poorly on just how well Phoenix took the game to Orlando in the early going, and even hung around late. Wolves keeper Andrew Weber denied Dwyer a penalty late, giving the Wolves a chance to at least get a point. But it also doesn’t reflect just how dominant and precise Orlando was in the second half. They were just too crisp, too quick, and too polished. They were in midseason form, it just took them half a game to show it. This was definitely the cliched ‘tale of two halves.’
So does Orlando deserve all of the credit for the drop off by the Wolves in the second half? Was it really that their quality was just too good? I’d have to say that Phoenix does bear some of the blame here. A similar thing happened in their home opener against VSI Tampa Bay. They got the early goal, dominated the first 60 or so minutes, and then eventually let Tampa threaten Weber and the 3 points Phoenix looked destined to take for most of the game. The final 10 minutes were nervy for La Furia Roja and the rest of the Phoenix faithful. On another day, that game may have ended 1-1. It would appear the first glaring issue that Phoenix needs to work on it’s the ability to play a full, 90 minute game. Put out a complete performance and close the game out. We can make excuses for this that seem reasonable enough. The team is an expansion team; this was only it’s 3rd league game. They’ve had some health issues with a few of it’s expected starting XI missing time early. The coaching staff hasn’t figured out how to use late game substitutions to solidify or capture a result. It could be any of these or a multitude of possible things. Regardless of what it is , any quality side like Orlando City will capitalize on these mistakes.
The encouraging thing here is that all of these things are fixable, or at the very least will get better. It is not for a lack of quality. We see the team dominate for entire halves at a time. They come out onto the field fired out of a cannon, full of energy and speed. They’re certainly capable of it. The team will get more experience in both the league and with each other. Time heals all wounds and a football team is no different. The starting XI will have it’s time together soon enough. The coaching staff will learn what super subs exist on this team, and how to motivate the players to maintain that energy for the entirety of the game. They get their next chance on the 14th when the Los Angeles Blues come into town for the rematch of the season opener. I predicted this team would find it’s way into the playoffs and I still think they’re more than capable of it. The 1-0-2 start has not shaken this expectation. They just have to learn to play complete games, so that those games can become a complete season.