With each new season, there’s a new beginning. That was certainly the case for the 2019 edition of New York City Football Club (NYCFC) Saturday afternoon as it began life without club legend David Villa by suffering a disappointing 2-2 road draw in balmy Orlando, Florida.
New York failed to answer the one question that has hung over this club throughout the off-season: what will NYCFC be without Villa, the captain, the team’s first ever signing, the leader?
NYCFC Start Fresh Faces
No one player was signed to replace the departed Villa, although newcomer Alexandru Mitrita (highlights here) did line up at the top of coach Dome Torrent‘s 4-2-3-1, the former captain’s old position.
Torrent also handed starts to a pair of young Americans, 18-year-old James Sands, and 21-year-old Jonathan Lewis, the speedy winger that Torrent only recently cautioned might still need additional seasoning, despite having impressed in a pair of winter cameos with the USMNT.
A Sunny First Half Performance…
A visit to 2018 strugglers Orlando figured to be a pleasant place to begin the season for City Football Group’s New York outpost, after all, what New Yorker doesn’t enjoy an early March getaway to sunny Florida? Factoring in Orlando’s last place 2018 finish in the Eastern Conference, NYCFC fans had to be feeling good when Ebenezer Ofori fired home the visitors opening goal in the game’s 13th minute.
Further ramping up the feel-good factor was the quality of the tally, a 30-yard laser that immediately goes into the Goal of the Year file at MLS headquarters.
The aforementioned Johnathan Lewis justified his coach’s confidence as he claimed the assist on Ofori’s golazo, and Lewis was otherwise solid in a 72-minute shift before being pulled for Jesus Medina.
If NYCFC had any hopes that Orlando would capitulate in the wake Ofori’s strike, the home team quickly put those thoughts to rest, coming close to an equalizer just moments after the re-start when Chris Mueller fired just wide of Sean Johnson‘s goalpost after a sublime set up from Sacha Kljestan.
Mueller’s near miss fired up the announced crowd of 25,527 at the impressive Orlando City Stadium. Orlando City SC seemed to feed off that energy, putting NYCFC back on its heels for much of the rest of the first half.
That first half included a water break at the half-hour mark, with the central Florida temperatures reaching 85 degrees, quite the contrast to snowy New York, and of course Commerce, Colorado where the Rapids and Portland Timbers played to a 3-3 draw in the coldest MLS match ever played, with temperatures of 13 degrees reported at kickoff.
That Orlando enjoyed a 61% to 39% possession advantage in the opening stanza was at least partly intentional on New York’s part, as Torrent played midfielder Sands as a defacto third center back for much of the first half, perhaps as a nod to the early season heat.
That left NYCFC to rely on counter attacks. That strategy paid off right before the halftime whistle when a superb through ball from Mitrita nutmegged an Orlando defender to send NYCFC captain Alex Ring in alone on Orlando keeper Brian Rowe. Ring finished cooly, and NYCFC headed for the locker room with a 2-0 lead.
…Went Cold in the Second Half
Mueller began the Orlando comeback in the 59th minute with an innocuous-looking free kick that eluded New York netminder Sean Johnson along with the entire NYCFC defense with a ball that eventually found itself gently shaking the net behind Johnson.
With the crowd chanting his name, Orlando City’s new Designated Player, Nani, checked in at the 70-minute mark, replacing Sebastian Mendez. Five minutes later, the man who never quite lived down not being Ronaldo made his first contribution a telling one, with a line breaking pass to fellow sub Dom Dwyer, who put the ball on a platter for Tesho Akindele to beat Johnson for the 75th-minute equalizer.
The disappointment of blowing a two-goal lead would eventually give way to relief at escaping Orlando with a draw, with the visitors receiving a gift from referee Baldomero Toledo, who despite help for the VAR, somehow managed to miss a clear handball from Maxime Chanot.