With only two teams left standing in the race for the MLS Cup, now is a good time to look back at how Orlando City fared against the two teams competing for the title of best in MLS. Columbus Crew SC will host the Portland Timbers in C-Bus to decide the 2015 league champion at 4 p.m. on Sunday, and the Lions handled themselves well against the best that the league has to offer, totaling a 3-1-1 record in five games against the two clubs, four of which came against the Crew.
The Lions got the better of Crew SC in '15 while laying the foundation for an Eastern Conference rivalry, and a trip to the hostile Providence Park showed that OCSC can win under difficult circumstances.
April 12: Orlando City 2-0 Portland Timbers
Facing its first trip out west in MLS, Orlando ended a three-match winless streak in impressive fashion at Providence Park. Adrian Heath deviated from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation and rolled out a 4-3-2-1, an adjustment that worked well for the Lions en route to the win.
We saw rookie sensation Cyle Larin net his first MLS goal in this one when he used his chest to redirect a Kevin Molino cross past Adam Kwarasey in the 30th minute. It was the first of a rookie record 17 goals for Larin on the year, and Kaká would put the match away in the 85th minute with a successful penalty kick.
It was a morale-building win for the Lions, who used their three-man central midfield to contain the Timbers' danger men Darlington Nagbe and Fanendo Adi for the second clean sheet of the season.
April 18: Columbus Crew 3-0 Orlando City
One of the lowest moments in Orlando's early season came at Mapfre Stadium on April 18. The game started badly, with Rafael Ramos committing an awful giveaway in the Lions' own 18-yard box that led directly to Federico Higuaín's opening goal in the 32nd-minute off an assist from Ethan Finlay. Just two minutes later, the young right back got himself sent off for a reckless, studs-up tackle on Waylon Francis. It was a foul born of frustration for Ramos, and it would end up costing the Lions, who didn't mount much resistance after going down to 10 men.
Columbus followed up with goals from Justin Meram and Kei Kamara in the second half to put the match away, sending the Lions home thoroughly beaten. Higuaín, Meram, Kamara and Finlay were great for the Crew, and they are a tough combination to beat on any night, much less when working a man down. It was a learning moment for Ramos, who got a lecture from Kaká as he left the pitch.
May 30: Orlando City 2-2 Columbus Crew
This match opened with an early goal from Tony Tchani in the fifth minute to take some wind out of the sails of a big crowd at the Citrus Bowl. The Lions would catch a break in the 16th-minute, however, in the form of a red card to Michael Parkhurst, who was deemed to have used his arm on the goal line to keep an Orlando shot from finding the back of the net.
Kaká would drill home the ensuing penalty and enjoy a celebration with the City faithful on The Wall. It wasn't quite what we would have hoped for from the Lions after going up a man, though, as Columbus used a goal from Kamara to take a 2-1 lead. The Lions looked like they would suffer a loss until the 89th-minute when substitute Pedro Ribeiro produced a wonder strike to level the score on a lethal left-footed rip from distance.
It was an awesome moment for the purple-clad supporters in attendance, but the result was a bit disappointing for City since it could not take advantage of the extra man it had for over 70 minutes.
June 30: U.S. Open Cup: Orlando City 2-0 Columbus Crew
City and the Crew met for the third time in 2015 in late June, but this one didn't carry league implications. The Lions hosted Columbus for a round of 16 match up in the U.S. Open Cup, and OCSC sent the Crew home with a 2-0 loss thanks to goals from Kaká and Carlos Rivas.
Kaká opened the scoring when he slotted home a shot from the top of the box thanks to an assist from Darwin Cerén (who played an excellent match), and Rivas followed that up with one of City's best goals of the season just about 15 minutes later. After Ribeiro battled a pair of defenders in the box, the ball rattled back out of the box where a charging Rivas teed off from about 23 yards out, unleashing a left-footed rocket into the top of goal.
It looked as if the blast may singe the net, and the Lions rode out the lead from there to advance in the tournament. The win marked the seventh match in a row that Orlando had not lost at home, and it set up perfectly as OCSC was coming off five days rest while Columbus played a pair of league matches in the past week.
Aug. 1: Orlando City 5-2 Columbus Crew
The finale between Orlando and Columbus took place at the Bowl on Aug. 1, and it provided a cathartic experience for the Lions. After a miserable July that saw Orlando lose five straight in all competitions, the Lions started off August in emphatic fashion with a 5-2 thumping of Crew SC on the strength of a Larin brace.
Higuaín would start things off with an early goal, but the Lions got their feet under them and it was all Orlando from there.
Larin netted in the 18th-minute before Cerén followed suit in the 38th-minute. Larin found the net again in the 58th-minute, setting the stage for Aurélien Collin to get in on the action in the 77th-minute and Cristian Higuita to close it out in the 84th-minute. Collin would register an unfortunate own goal in stoppage time, but that couldn't put a damper on what was one of the Lions' most impressive wins of their inaugural MLS campaign.
While Orlando ultimately fell short in its final push for the postseason, its success against two of the best teams in the league provides optimism moving into the club's second year in MLS. Had these Lions made it into the playoffs, they might have made some noise, based on the above results.