ORLANDO, Fla. – Less than 50 seconds into the match, it looked as though the story for Atlanta United would diverge from how much of their 2021 campaign has gone.
But it was a familiar tale at the final whistle. Orlando City SC – unbeaten in their last five matches against their Southeast rivals – needed some late drama from Nani to claim three points Friday night in the form of a 3-2 win over Atlanta. And after suffering their worst loss under Oscar Pareja to the tune of a 5-0 defeat to New York City FC five days prior at Yankee Stadium, they corrected course to (at least for the time being) move into second place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Here are three takeaways from a dramatic game at Exploria Stadium.
By all accounts, Orlando probably should have led by multiple goals instead of being tied 1-1 by the time referee Rubiel Vazquez whistled for halftime. Atlanta's defense struggled to tame Orlando's attack, but was repeatedly bailed out by goalkeeper Alec Kann. He was credited with a club-record six first-half saves, including an outrageous denial of Chris Mueller right before the break.
And the story turned a little bleaker behind a Marcelino Moreno golazo in the 66th minute, as Atlanta took a 2-1 lead despite Orlando finding themselves on the front foot for much of the second half.
Then Atlanta's defense gave way through a pair of headed goals down the stretch, first from Silvester van der Water and then from Nani. Suddenly, a heavy loss away to NYCFC became but a distant memory.
"It has been a difficult week," Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja said. "It's well known that the performance we had last week, we needed to just erase and learn from it and bounce back and many things needed to happen. The players were incredible today."
In the case of offseason signing van der Water, Pareja mentioned that the transition to MLS has been a bit of an adjustment while revealing that the Dutchman was removed from Sunday's match at NYCFC due to muscular "tightness." Despite experiencing the ailment again during training, he entered in the 74th minute of Friday's match to score the equalizer and assist on Nani's match-winner in the 87th minute.
"He was brave to be part of the game despite that difficulty that he has," Pareja said of the former Heracles winger. "Then I think the game rewarded him tonight. He's an important player. We brought him to do those things and Silvester, today, he came and showed us all the potential that he has. I'm very happy for him. I know his teammates [are] as well."
Josef Martinez really, really enjoys playing in Orlando. He now has eight career goals against the Lions.
This is the Martinez that Atlanta need to see, along with contributions from others, if they're going to make something of the remainder of what's been a challenging season. They're also reportedly nearing a deal for Velez Sarsfield star and Argentinian U-20 attacker Thiago Almada, possibly providing a final-third boost. Another golazo or two by Moreno wouldn't hurt, either.
So is Atlanta's attack finally turning the corner? That remains to be seen, but it's clearly little consolation if moments like Martinez's 1st-minute goal don't translate to victories.
"They can be encouraged that two attacking players scored really nice goals, but ultimately [it comes down to] winning games," said Atlanta United interim head coach Rob Valentino. "We can talk as much as we want, but we need to win games, and that's all it comes down to."
Kann was terser in his assessment, alluding to Atlanta's 11-game winless streak.
"This is a results-based business and we haven't been getting the results that the club expects," he said. "We're out of excuses. It's on the players to get this right, and we've got to look at ourselves in the mirror and make it happen on Wednesday [at CF Montréal]...
"It's good to have us scoring goals. In the last couple of games, we couldn't score and we were creating chances. Now we're scoring goals and leaking goals. We've got to right the ship on both sides of the ball."
With three crucial points, Orlando City are now five points behind the Eastern Conference-leading New England Revolution and two points clear of NYCFC. Wins like this, especially after their Bronx beatdown last weekend, can propel the club through the dog days of summer, especially with another rivalry match on tap Wednesday against Inter Miami CF.
And the Lions will be buoyed by the eventual return of Daryl Dike from international duty, with Tesho Akindele seeing a brief spell off the bench just a day after Canada's loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup. They'll hope to eventually have goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, midfielder Junior Urso, midfielder Sebastian Mendez and forward Alexandre Pato back to full health and in the fold as well.
"I think we showed [what] we have been made of, what this team is," Pareja said. "The players need all the recognition and today they won a very important match. Not just the three points, but just the way they fought back. It's a credit for them."