The New York Red Bulls went ahead early in the Citrus Bowl on a curling Sacha Kljestan goal, but it was yet another extremely questionable red card decision that put the match out of reach for Orlando City in a disappointing 2-0 loss in front of 33,518 fans at the Citrus Bowl.
Things were fairly even through the first 20 minutes or so, with both teams getting forward with intent. In the 16th minute, the Lions moved the ball up the right wing brilliantly, eventually finding fullback Rafael Ramos streaking down the wing. His cross found Kaká at the top of the box, who laid it off nicely for Carlos Rivas, but the Colombian speedster's shot was just inches wide of the post.
Just as City was finding their footing in the match though, it was the visitors who struck first. Sacha Kljestan, New York's newly added
Designated Player midfielder, received the ball just outside the top corner of the box. Aurelien Collin and Rafael Ramos seemed unsure who should close down the midfielder, and Kljestan took advantage of the space and fired a curling effort past a diving Tally Hall.
Orlando dominated the play in the minutes following the goal, but that was when things took a turn for the ridiculous. In the 32nd minute, forward Cyle Larin went in for a relatively harmless slide tackle on Kljestan, who proceeded to launch himself into the air and crumble to the ground in a comically exaggerated manner. To the befuddlement of the home fans and Orlando City player though, the referee reached into his pocket and produced a red card for Larin.
"The problem is, I'm going to get in trouble (talking about the officiating)," Head Coach Adrian Heath said after the match. "I don't know what to say. It's not just me."
It was Orlando City's sixth red card of the season, and third consecutive MLS match with a red. It remains to be seen whether City will appeal the decision, but it was an incredibly frustrating decision for a team currently in a very tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
Heath said he would look at the video again and decide if it's worth appealing, which carries a risk of additional penalties if unsuccessful.
Despite playing down a man for just under 60 minutes, the Lions were persistent and managed to keep up the pressure on the Red Bulls. Rivas' speed caused troubles for the New York back line, and he fired two free kicks from around 30 yards that forced saves from Luis Robles.
In the 66th minute, Kljestan took another dive, yet the ref again missed the call and awarded a yellow card to Cristian Higuita, who will miss Orlando City's next match due to yellow card accumulation. The madness didn't stop there though, with the referee shockingly sending Heath to the locker room in the 74th minute for apparent dissent.
With Assistant Coach Mark Watson in command, Orlando City continued to pressure for the final 15 minutes, with Kaká looking like a man on a mission to rescue a point for the Lions. It wasn't quite enough, and the Red Bulls' Mike Grella finished off an exhausted Orlando side with a goal in second-half stoppage time.
The result didn't dampen Heath's view of how his team played.
"We were excellent. We play like that, we're going to win more than we lose, I guarantee it," Heath said after the match. "With 14 games left, we're going to give it everything. This group won't give in, I guarantee you that. We're gonna be fighting until the end."
Orlando City will definitely be without Higuita for their next league match against NYCFC, and potentially Larin as well, depending on whether the Lions choose to appeal the decision. Regardless, the team will be surely be disappointed to have dropped two straight at home.
Orlando City are back in action this Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., traveling to Chicago to take on the Fire in the sixth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.