After falling in five straight down the stretch, Orlando City B defeated Bethlehem Steel FC 2-0 on the road to clinch the final playoff spot in the USL's Eastern Conference. The win, behind goals by Johnny Mendoza and Lewis Neal, came just hours after the Wilmington Hammerheads climbed ahead of OCB for the final spot Saturday night with a win over the Richmond Kickers.
With Wilmington having moved two points ahead of OCB the night prior, the Lions needed all three points in Bethlehem, PA, to secure that eighth and final playoff spot on the last day of the season. It was a rough start for OCB as it looked as though the Steel might strike early. After a dangerous pass back to Mark Ridgers, which was cleared out of danger, Cory Burke fed Derrick Jones, giving him a chance on goal. But his shot went just feet wide of Ridgers' net and OCB survived an opening scare.
Just three minutes after nearly conceding the opening goal, OCB pounced in the ninth minute. Striker Michael Cox drove into the box shielding off a defender and was able to get a pass across the six-yard box before staggering out of play. Waiting on the end of the pass was an unmarked Johnny Mendoza, who simply touched the ball over the line to give the Lions a 1-0 lead.
9' GOOOALL! Michael Cox STRONG in the box and feeds to Mendoza who finishes! OCB with the early lead! #BSTvOCB | 0-1 pic.twitter.com/nBS7USA5BM— Orlando City B (@OrlandoCityB) September 25, 2016
Bethlehem answered OCB's goal with a flurry of chances led by striker Justin McMaster. The 17-year-old academy product of the Philadelphia Union had three chances on goal but was unable to convert. Then, in the 35th minute, it looked as though the Steel would pull level. Midfielder Leo Fernandes ripped a shot that looked as though it was destined to be the equalizer, but the ball ricocheted off the crossbar, allowing OCB to maintain its slight advantage.
OCB was dominated in the first half by the Steel, being out-shot 13-2, but held on tightly to the one-goal lead. The Lions came out much stronger in the second half and, 13 minutes after the break, doubled their lead. Attempting to clear, Derrick Jones mishit the ball, allowing it to fall to OCB captain Lewis Neal. And from distance, Neal didn't miss. Hit half-volley shot flew past Steel goalkeeper Matt Perrella and into the top corner, giving the Lions an all-important second goal.
.@lewis_neal24 pushes @OrlandoCityB one step closer to the #USLPlayoffs! BSTvORL pic.twitter.com/qhqZeMWY5I— USL (@USL) September 25, 2016
Down the stretch, Bethlehem pushed to get back into the game. The Steel had multiple opportunities over the past half hour that could've resulted in easy tap-ins or forced Ridgers into impressive saves. But in the end, OCB was able to hold on and earn the three points that allowed the team to take part in the its first-ever postseason.
Of note from the game, Orlando City midfielder/forward Pedro Ribeiro played 61 minutes. Following his 45 minutes last time out, Ribeiro was supposed to go an hour last week but was needed with the senior team due to a lack of bodies. Having completed that hour this afternoon, it's expected that Ribeiro will soon join the MLS side once again. In addition, central defender Tommy Redding and striker Hadji Barry also were loaned to OCB for the match, and both played -- Redding went the distance while Barry came on for Cox late in the game.
The Lions' reward will be a trip to Red Bull Arena, where they will take on the league-leading New York Red Bulls II next Sunday at 4 p.m.. As the last of the 16 playoff teams, OCB will play each of its postseason games on the road, regardless of how far the team goes. But, with this win, after it looked as though the Lions might not finish off their playoff run, the USL side became the first Orlando City team to earn a playoff spot in 2016.
Starting XI: Ridgers; Turner, Redding, McFadden, Hayden; Neal (c), P. Ribeiro (A. Ribeiro, 62'), Mendoza (Obekop, 45'), Heath (D. Garcia, 73'), Da Silva; Cox (Barry, 70')
Unused Subs: Fenlason, Donovan, Laryea
Goals: ORL - Mendoza (9'), Neal (58')
Yellow Cards: BET - Fontana (84') ORL - Turner (32'), McFadden (52'), P. Ribeiro (60'), A. Ribeiro (66'), Da Silva (90')