It came down to a VAR call and a late Facundo Torres penalty kick to seal Orlando City a return to the MLS Cup playoffs after rallying to defeat the Columbus Crew 2-1 on Sunday afternoon at Exploria Stadium.
Derrick Etienne scored in the first half for the Crew, but a second-half response with goals from Junior Urso in the 56th minute and a Benji Michel’s strike that hit off a Columbus player’s hand set up the penalty for Torres in the 84th minute to secure the victory for the Lions.
“Very happy and very proud of the club, of the community who had put our Orlando City on the map of MLS as a protagonist and a community club who wants to fight for things,” Oscar Pareja said moments after the game. “We feel really great and obviously with a big responsibility to continue, but it’s a great day for us. We overcome. That’s the culture of us, suffering probably too much but we’re enjoying it. It’s a very difficult game today with all the circumstances around it. The boys found a way to qualify and it’s a big thing for us.”
It’s the third consecutive year the Lions return to the playoffs under Pareja.
But Lions struggled heading into Sunday’s match, which had an announced attendance of 21,693.
Orlando (14-14-6, 48 points) lost four times in its last five games prior to the Columbus match.
A lackluster first half eventually saw the Crew open the scoring in the 38th minute when a backheel flick from Lucas Zelarayan to Derrick Etienne managed to cut through Orlando’s backline to strike the ball past Pedro Gallese.
Orlando responded with the tying goal early in the second half when a pass from Mauricio Pereyra to Junior Urso saw the Brazilian turn and move close from scoring range before slotting the ball past Eloy Room for the equalizer in the 56th minute.
Pareja deployed Benji Michel in the 74th minute for Ercan Kara, and the Orlando homegrown had an immediate impact when his strike toward goal hit off Columbus’ Milos Degenek’s hands, resulting in head referee Alex Chilowicz to consult with the VAR before awarding the penalty.
Torres converted the penalty in the 84th minute to score his ninth MLS goal this season, 13th across all competitions.
The Crew have lost 24 points from winning positions in MLS this season — only New England and FC Cincinnati has lost more, the latter of which is making their first appearance in the playoffs.
Pareja deployed Joao Moutinho at centerback with Antonio Carlos out for suspension and Robin Jansson omitted after undergoing surgery.
The Orlando coach said he used Moutinho at centerback because of prior experience at the college level and that the Portuguese fullback showed “personality” to play that role alongside Rodrigo Schlegel.
Sunday’s match was a must-win for the Lions to leapfrog over Columbus for the final playoff spot. A draw and a loss would’ve kept Orlando out of the postseason for the first time since 2019.
Orlando will now travel to face CF Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. An official date will be determined later in the week.
For Torres, Orlando returning to the playoffs means the start of a new competition and with success in the Open Cup, it benefits the Lions.
“The team in the Open Cup was incredible because we wouldn’t do well in the regular season and when we played in the cup, we’ll be a different team,” said Torres. “It’s 90 minutes where you have to be concentrated, and that helps us with understanding these types of games. It’s a new competition for us.”
How the Lions lined up:
Orlando City XI: Pedro Gallese, Kyle Smith, Joao Moutinho, Rodrigo Schlegel, Ruan; Mauricio Pereyra – c (Wilder Cartagena, 89′), Cesar Araujo, Junior Urso (Mikey Halliday, 90+5′), Ivan Angulo (Tesho Akindele, 89′), Facundo Torres (Andres Perea, 89′); Ercan Kara (Benji Michel, 74′).
Unused substitutes: Mason Stajduhar, Nicholas Gioacchini, Jake Mulraney, Thomas Williams.
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