Orlando Sentinel

Pato’s injury in opener feels all too familiar

- By Julia Poe

Orlando City kicked off its 2021 season at home Saturday against longtime rival Atlanta United and despite excitement from the increased number of fans in the stands, the match ended in a scoreless draw.

Here are three things we learned:

Injured star feels familiar

The arrival of Brazilian star Alexandre Pato stood out as the highest point of interest for Lions fans and casual MLS viewers of the team’s first match. The striker was an internatio­nal sensation early in his career, but repetitive injuries derailed a career expected to match that of Kaká.

When Pato came to Orlando City, he signed a low-budget contract with the stated goal of reinventin­g himself on the pitch. During his MLS debut, he showed potential as a new starting striker for the Lions, earning man-of-the-match for his performanc­e.

However, Pato was forced to leave the match with an apparent knee injury after falling awkwardly in the second half. Coach Oscar Pareja didn’t have an immediate update on the forward’s health following the match on Saturday, and the club didn’t provide an update on his health Sunday.

This sparked immediate concern for Orlando City fans, who are well-versed in the toll prior injuries took on the striker’s career and have seen many star players fail to meet their potential or miss chunks of games because of injuries.

Before leaving the game, Pato had two clear goal-scoring opportunit­ies in the box during the

second half. One resulted in a deflection and a highlight save by Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan. The other was taken and missed by midfielder Sebas Méndez after the two teammates converged for an open shot on goal and failed to communicat­e.

Both missed opportunit­ies highlight that Pato is one of three new players on the Lions roster, still trying to improve on both finishing and chemistry with his new teammates, and that he hasn’t played in a competitiv­e match in over six months.

However, he showed flashes of creativity and maintained an energetic pace throughout his debut.

Pareja said that he noted a marked improvemen­t in Pato’s role in the second half when he positioned the striker higher as a No. 9 — a center forward in an isolated striker position — at the top of the Lions attack.

“It was a good game for Alex,” Pareja said. “That commitment that he has with his team, trying to create from that zone where we put him in the first half, I think we could find those spaces. And then he’s very crafty with the ball and created some chances for

us . ... We had the best of him, put him in front of the goal twice.”

Defense holds

When Atlanta United attacker Josef Martínez entered in the final third of the match, Orlando City fans visibly held their collective breath.

In prior seasons, Lions supporters became familiar with this narrative of Atlanta United matches: strong starts punctuated by missed opportunit­ies for Orlando and ultimately highlighte­d by a last-minute finish from Martínez, the

team’s long-lasting Achilles heel.

But Saturday, the Orlando City defense absorbed lategame pressure from the Atlanta attack despite missing a starting centerback and leftback. That’s an improvemen­t for the Lions, who finished with just five clean sheets in 2020 despite an otherwise successful season.

Rodrigo Schlegel filled in for centerback Robin Jansson while Kyle Smith shifted to the left side of the field to fill the role of starting left back João Moutinho, who continues to recover from hip surgery.

The pair seamlessly took over the left side of the backline against Atlanta. Smith credited their communicat­ion as a key to their performanc­e, noting Schlegel shouted directions and positional suggestion­s throughout the game to keep their spacing tight.

Although Atlanta created several opportunit­ies in the final minutes —— including a corner kick and a set piece aimed at Martínez —— Schlegel and Smith blanketed the attack and limited opportunit­ies.

“I think when the game comes into those last final minutes, I personally am telling myself, ‘We have to keep this clean sheet. They cannot score. I can do this,’ ” Smith said. “I feel like everyone else on the team is telling themselves and telling each other that as well. It’s just about mentality and making sure that we keep that clean sheet, and we know we can do it.”

Offense lacks firepower

For many Lions fans, the main takeaway from Saturday’s match was the absence of a pair of stars — midfielder Mauricio Pereyra and striker Daryl Dike.

Pereyra served the first of a two-game suspension for a red card from the 2020 playoffs while Dike finishes his loan period with Barnsley in the English Championsh­ip. Without them, the Lions were missing dynamic creativity and explosive finishing that drew attention throughout the 2020 season.

The Lions will regain their starting playmaker after next week’s match when Pereyra returns from suspension.

But Dike’s future poses a larger question.

The striker already has received a $10 million transfer offer from a Premier League team, and the club expects more offers to follow as he continues his success on loan. Although Pareja remains firm that Dike will return to Orlando in May, the club has restated its willingnes­s to transfer him if they receive the right offer.

Whether or not Dike returns, the Lions aren’t built to rely on a singular player to produce goals. Although Dike and Chris Mueller stood out last year, the team succeeded because seven different players produced multiple goals.

A lack of scoring isn’t cause for concern in a season opener when strikers are still brushing off their technique after a long offseason. But the Lions will need to find answers on offense.

 ?? STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL ?? Orlando players Jhegson Mendez (left) and Alexandre Pato (7) try unsuccessf­ully to get the ball past Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan (right) at Exploria Stadium on Saturday. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.
STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL Orlando players Jhegson Mendez (left) and Alexandre Pato (7) try unsuccessf­ully to get the ball past Atlanta goalkeeper Brad Guzan (right) at Exploria Stadium on Saturday. The game ended in a 0-0 tie.

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