It wasn’t the way Orlando City expected to get the win over the Columbus Crew on Wednesday at Exploria Stadium.
But in 2020, nothing ever happens as you expect it.
The Lions (11-3-8, 41 points) took a 1-0 halftime lead courtesy of Chris Mueller, then it turned into a 1-1 score when the Crew took advantage after Orlando was reduced to 10 players when Nani was shown a red card.
And eventually it was Benji Michel’s 84th-minute goal that not only secured the Lions a 2-1 victory over the Crew — but clinched Orlando City a home playoff match later this month.
“I think the first half was very good. One of the best we have had,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “The volume that we had, the creativity, and the connections were what we were looking for and it was consistent in the whole half. I decided to impose our game against a very good team, it was remarkable.”
“Second half, we knew Columbus was going to come to offer the reactions. Normally, and we found this play with, with Nani where, obviously we disagree totally and we had the opportunity to review it. But after that, I think the heart of our players came up and they showed where they have got during in this year. A team who may not be made up by the best players, but out a bunch of players that make each other better and better and I’m very proud.”
Throughout the first half, Orlando was on the front foot of the match. In the 11th minute, the Lions had a shout for a handball in the box after Pedro Santos struck the ball with his arm, but nothing was called. Three minutes later, Junior Urso missed a point black shot wide after finding himself wide open in the box.
It wasn’t until the 27th minute when a Harrison Afful turnover fell to Mauricio Pereyra who found Chris Muller in the box for an easy finish.
Two minutes later, Orlando almost doubled their lead through Kyle Smith, but Crew keeper Eloy Room made two back-to-back saves on Smith’s shots to keep the score at 1-0.
The second half was one that was a roller coaster of emotions for both teams. Just six minutes into the second half, captain Nani went into a challenge on Artur, clipping him trying to get the ball back. Originally, Nani was shown a yellow, but after the incident went to video review, the captain was shown a straight red card.
Down to 10 men, Orlando had to change up their strategy and were forced into a defensive shell. However, just five minutes after going down a man, the Crew scored the equalizer. Harrison Afful made up for his earlier error by smashing a shot into the roof of the net to pull the game level.
Throughout most of the second half, Orlando defended well, keeping Columbus away from goal. Playing the defend and counter game, the Lions stuck Benji Michel up top as a lone striker to run onto long balls, which was able to relieve pressure when the Crew were pushing for a winner.
That strategy ended up working in the 84th minute when Mauricio Pereyra played a ball overtop for Michel, who headed it over one defender, chested it past another and put it through Eloy Room’s legs to give Orlando the lead back in unprecedented fashion.
“Well Mauricio, when I was on the field, he told me ‘Benji, just run and I’ll get you to ball’ and I just ran,” Benji Michel said of the goal. “The ball came and I just tried to stick with it as much as possible. And the ball landed right. I purposely controlled it off my head, touched it down and you know, I meant to put it through his legs. I think I felt like that was the only option. No, I’m kidding, I’m kidding. But yeah, I just feel like it was a really good team goal.”
With the lead, Orlando had to hold on for the next six minutes of regulation plus eight minutes of stoppage time, but right at the 98th minute, the whistle blew and Orlando celebrated the comeback victory.
With the win, Orlando have clinched a home playoff game in the first round of the MLS Playoffs in two weeks.
Now sitting third in the Eastern Conference after the win, Orlando finish the regular season at home on Sunday, taking on Nashville SC at 7:30 p.m. The match will televise locally on FOX 35 Plus.
Editor’s Note: A designated pool reporter submitted questions to head referee Ramy Touchan:
1. What was the specific reasoning that the red card to Nani was given?
Red card was for Serious Foul Play for a straight leg tackle, contact with studs above the ankle.
2. What changed the call on Nani from yellow to red?
Originally thought that the contact was low on the foot and reckless.
3. Why wasn’t there a review for the handball on Columbus in the 11th minute of the match?
VAR did not feel there was a clear and obvious error in the non giving of a penalty for handball.
27′ – Chris Mueller, assisted by Mauricio Pereyra (ORL)
56′ – Harrison Afful, assisted by Pedro Santos (CLB)
84′ – Benji Michel, assisted by Mauricio Pereyra (ORL)
Here’s how the Lions lined up
Orlando City XI: Pedro Gallese; Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, Ruan; Andres Perea, Junior Urso (Rodrigo Schlegel, 87’), Nani ©, Mauricio Pereyra (Joey DeZart, 88’); Chris Mueller (Sebastian Mendez, 59’), Tesho Akindele (Benji Michel, 70’)
Substitutes: Brian Rowe, Alex De John, Kamal Miller, Alexander Alvarado, Matheus Aias
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