KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Orlando City and Toronto F.C. lined up before their Group B clash at the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic Saturday to honor the national anthems of the United States and Canada.
What followed was a 90-minute battle between the reigning United Soccer Leagues champion and their Major League Soccer opponents that more closely resembled a tussle between teams from England and the Netherlands.
The resulting 2-2 tie extended third-tier Orlando’s unbeaten run against MLS clubs to three games following recent pre-season ties against Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union. Head coach Adrian Heath still came away feeling disappointed with his team’s performance.
“We’re a lot better than we’ve shown this evening,” former Everton forward Heath told The Soccer Observer after the game.
“The way that we’ve passed the ball for the last six or seven months has been very pleasing to see,” Heath said. “Tonight, we looked like a team that’s 10 days into pre-season.”
That’s almost literally true. Orlando’s USL Pro division title defense doesn’t start until April 7 – four weeks after MLS kicks off – but Heath wasn’t looking for excuses against opponents with “10 times the budget that we have.”
“Our ball retention was poor and our choice of final ball was poor,” Heath said. “We’ll have to improve, and we will.”
Heath set his team up in a conventional 4-4-2 formation. Former Stoke City players James O’Connor and Anthony Pulis, son of Potters’ manager Tony, moved across the pond in January to anchor Heath’s midfield. John Rooney, another recent capture following his spell at New York Red Bulls last year, operated as the deeper-lying forward, and fellow Englishman Luke Boden started at left-back.
For Toronto, former Ajax and Holland international Aron Winter favors the 4-3-3 system mastered by his former club and his country during the 1970s. Dutch designated player Danny Koevermans led the attack. Captain Torsten Frings and Terry Dunfield operated in front of the back four, while Eric Avila provided the offensive point to Winter’s midfield triangle.
The opening minutes saw Orlando struggling against Toronto’s bustling pressing game. Joao Plata promptly closed down any attacks from Jerome Mechack and Kevin Molino on Orlando’s right flank, while Toronto’s right-winger Reggie Lambe took advantage of a panicked turnover by Pulis to drive at Orlando’s defense.
Still, Heath’s team took the lead from the penalty spot on 17 minutes. Lively striker Maxwell Griffin skipped around Geovanny Caicedo in Toronto’s penalty area before being pulled down by the recovering defender. Rooney kept calm despite an extended injury delay to wrong-foot goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
Shoddy defending allowed Toronto to draw level six minutes later. Orlando’s defensive wall disintegrated as Miguel Aceval shaped to blast a free-kick from just outside the penalty area. The ball appeared to strike Pulis’ raised arm before spinning past helpless goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo.
Rooney’s penalty-spot expertise wasn’t being replicated at Orlando’s other set plays. The young Englishman floated a couple of corners into Frei’s arms, spurning good chances to put Toronto under rare pressure.
Orlando finally enjoyed a brief spell of territorial superiority in the closing minutes of the first half. O’Connor showed great vision to release Charlie Campbell in behind Toronto right-back Richard Eckersley. Campbell’s cross was only half-cleared and Griffin almost managed to steer a shot on goal.
A similar break by Campbell set up Orlando’s second goal on 54 minutes. The 24-year-old raced clear of Toronto’s offside trap before opting to pass the ball across the penalty box to the advancing Molino despite having a clean sight of Frei’s goal. Ashtone Morgan’s sliding block thwarted Molino’s first attempt, but the Orlando midfielder bundled the rebound over the goal line.
Toronto’s second equalizer on 62 minutes came from a surprising source – former Werder Bremen midfielder Frings. The German designated player brings a wealth of top-level experience to Major League Soccer, but his midfield partnership with Dunfield is far from dynamic.
Frings seemed immobilized in the center circle for much of the evening, but he managed to stray forward on 62 minutes to apply a smart hooked finish beyond Gallardo after a Toronto set play looked to have broken down.
The goal proved to be Frings’ last act. Winter substituted six players before the restart and ultimately changed all of his outfielders as the closing stages became increasingly ragged.
Orlando substitute Dennis Chin had the best chance to win the game on 78 minutes when Molino’s pass found him bearing down on Frei’s goal. Chin tried to go around the Swiss goalkeeper after throwing a feint, but Frei stayed focused and pounced on the ball.
Winter’s 4-3-3 formation differs from what Orlando usually faces in USL, but Heath was adamant that Toronto’s approach didn’t affect his team’s performance.
“We knew that’s how they would play and we’ve had two or three days to work on that,” Heath said. “I’m more concerned with the way we gave the ball away, made poor choices in the wrong areas, and basically haven’t done the things that we do regularly.”