It seems like we've been saying this for weeks now (because we have), but Orlando City (12-13-8, 44 points) played the biggest game of its inaugural season on Friday night against New York City FC at the Citrus Bowl. Needing three points to keep their perpetually slim playoff hopes alive, the Lions overcame a first-half deficit and registered a 2-1 win over NYCFC (10-16-7, 37 points), thanks to rookie striker Cyle Larin's brace, to keep the pressure on Montreal as the season draws to a close.
The match got off to a feisty start, with physical play from both sides causing some early stop-and-start action. The first half would be characterized by missed opportunities for the Lions, who failed to convert on a number of dangerous chances, most of which were created by left winger Carlos Rivas.
The Colombian -- who appeared to have tweaked his ankle in pre-game warm-ups -- looked explosive, and used curling left-footed crosses to trouble NYCFC defenders. Rivas created chances for City twice in the first 15 minutes, the best of which was scuffed wide right of goal by Larin after a deflected Rivas through ball found the rookie's right foot in the box. Perhaps Rivas' finest play of the half came on 40 minutes, when he sent in another perfectly placed left-footed ball towards Larin, who connected on a header right at the edge of the 6-yard box but could not get any direction on his effort, which went straight into the hands of NYC 'keeper Josh Saunders.
Just three minutes later, Rivas beat two defenders on the left edge of the box and played a nice low cross in front of goal, but once again Larin was barely unable to reach it for what would've been a certain goal.
OCSC manager Adrian Heath was understandably pleased with Rivas' performance following the match, saying that the Colombian "was a problem for them all night."
Orlando would pay for its missed chances in stoppage time just before half, when an NYCFC corner, which probably shouldn't have been awarded in the first place, resulted in a deflected shot in the box that landed at the feet of defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe, who slotted home past Tally Hall just before the break to put NYC ahead 1-0 despite being out-performed in the opening 45.
If the first half was marked by missed opportunities, the Lions made up for those missed in the second.
After taking a few minutes to regain their pep following the gut-punch NYC goal that ended the first half, Orlando leveled the score in minute 61, thanks to its rookie sensation, Larin. City right back Corey Ashe made a run up the flank and sent in a beauty of a cross to Larin, who was charging toward the right, about seven yards from the goal. The likely MLS Rookie of the Year redirected a great header toward the far post, easily beating Saunders and sending the City faithful into frenzy.
Larin would notch another less than 10 minutes later, as OCSC took advantage of an injury to NYCFC's Javier Calle. As the defender lay in NYC's own 18-yard box, Larin and Winter charged forward on the break. The Canadian played it to Winter on the right, who was stoned by Saunders who made a great one-armed save. Unfortunately for the NYC stopper, Winter was able to corral the rebound and pull it back in front of goal to a wide open Larin, who put the ball home and gave Orlando the 2-1 advantage. The prone Calle kept Larin onside.
Heath was adamant about the decision to play on despite Calle being down, noting the circumstances surrounding the game and City's need for three points, as well as injuries simply being a part of the game.
"It would have been a brave man to have kicked the ball out in the circumstances with us needing to win the game," he told reporters post-match.
It was an admirable second-half performance by the Lions, who responded well after falling behind on New York's late first-half goal.
"The response from the players was incredible," Heath said. "[We were] really unfortunate to go in at the break behind, but we really deserved the win."
Larin came within inches of another hat trick against NYC in the 73rd minute, when he put another ball across the line (or so it appeared), but the backside of defender Jefferson Mena was on top of the ball, obstructing referee Allen Chapman's view (presumably), and play was allowed to go on after NYC had cleared the ball off the goal line.
With the brace, Larin now sits at 17 goals on the season, six more than the previous rookie scoring record in MLS and level with star NYCFC striker David Villa.
The bad news for City came late on, when Hall went down grabbing his right knee and had to be subbed off in minute 84 as he charged to claim a long ball. If Hall's injury is serious -- he previously tore the ACL in that same knee last season -- the Lions will be depending on Josh Ford for the remainder of the season between the posts.
With the victory, Orlando City is guaranteed to finish higher than its expansion counterparts from New York and closes to within a point of Montreal, which plays at New England on Saturday. When asked what he would be doing during the Montreal vs. New England match, Heath responded with a smile.
"I will probably be out to dinner with my wife."
Heath praised the Orlando City supporters afterwards, as the crowd of 43,179 was City's second-largest of the season and set a new MLS record for total attendance by an expansion club in its first season.
"We've got the best fans in the league. To have this support after one year in MLS amazes me. The atmosphere in the stadium was electric."