Orlando City (7-5-3, 24 points) earned its second straight clean sheet but it’s safe to say the Lions will probably never earn a more satisfying single point in a match. Referee Ted Unkel put his fingerprints all over this match, sending two Lions off early but Orlando City’s players rallied around one another for a hard-fought 0-0 draw in front of 24,469 at Orlando City Stadium.
Rafael Ramos and Antonio Nocerino both hit the showers while the game was still going on but the Lions still held off league-leading goal scorer Nemanja Nikolic and the high-flying Chicago Fire (7-3-4, 25 points), who entered the game on a four-game winning streak.
“I don’t want to talk about the [referee’s] decisions,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the match. “I don’t think it’s fair to the players to bring up a negative point of view. For me, the point of view should only be positive because the work that those guys put in tonight, the togetherness that those guys showed tonight, the commitment level that those guys showed tonight — what they were willing to do for each other, for themselves, and for the fans — was second to none. I just want to say, ‘hats off to our boys.’”
After the game, the referee’s liaison said referee Ted Unkel refused to respond to questions asked by the pool reporter, who submitted three questions after conferring with the game’s assembled media during the match. This level of petulance isn’t surprising considering the track record of this particular game official.
The game was only 26 minutes old when Ramos was sent off without either side having yet really settled into the match.
Ramos, tracking a ball hit high into the air, stuck out a foot to clear it but did it just as Brandon Vincent arrived. Ramos was tracking the ball’s flight path and it was unlikely he even knew Vincent was bearing down on him, but Unkel judged his play to be “violent conduct” and sent Ramos to the showers early in his first MLS match this season.
“I feel for the referees because they’re asked to interpret things on a second’s notice and they’re asked to interpret so many things,” Johnson said. “I’m sure you could poll a bunch of people and some say it’s a red, some not. I thought we dealt with them well and I think that’s the story we’re taking from it.
“He feels hard done by,” Johnson said of Ramos. “You feel for the kid. He works for three months getting himself fit and healthy and then a call like that comes your way and it’s tough to swallow.”
Johnson took over at right back for the remainder of the first half as Jason Kreis kept his attacking players on the field to try to hit Chicago on the counter. After halftime, Giles Barnes was withdrawn and Scott Sutter took over at right back.
“Asking him to switch positions — which, he hasn’t played right back for a very long time now — he just went in there and did anything and everything that it took tonight to lead this team to a result. He wasn’t the only one. I think everybody that played in this match tonight showed what they’re willing to give to this team, to this community, and to this club.”
Kreis started a young back line, with Ramos giving Sutter a breather — for 45 minutes, anyway — and Leo Pereira and PC spelling Jose Aja and Donny Toia, respectively. The midfield featured Cristian Higuita, Nocerino, Johnson, and Barnes, with Carlos Rivas and Cyle Larin up top in a 4-4-2 that later became a 4-4-1 and then a 4-4-0 as game conditions changed.
Not much happened prior to Ramos’ red card. Johnson had a shot at the top of the box blocked and Rivas sent a free kick over the Heineken sign and into the upper deck from 30 yards out. David Accam, who has torched Orlando in the past, saw Bendik block his shot in the 14th minute. Bastian Schweinsteiger hit a shot over the bar at the 20-minute mark. Rivas hit a rocket in the 24th that forced Matt Lampson to parry it away but then the Colombian fired well wide off a layoff from Nocerino on a short corner that could have worked if he hit it on frame.
Two minutes later, the game was ruined and Orlando City was forced into settling for sporadic counter attacks as the sole source of offense.
Schweinsteiger took the free kick just above the box after Ramos departed but hit his shot over the net. Larin had Orlando’s best scoring opportunity in the 33rd minute, catching Lampson off his line, but the Canadian hit his shot straight at the Chicago keeper rather than chipping him.
A minute after that chance, Johnson made a sliding block to knock a cross out for a corner with a Fire player lurking at the back post for a tap-in. The last dangerous chances of the first half came Chicago’s way. The first happened in the 42nd minute, when Vincent hit a shot that took a deflection and just missed the back post. In stoppage time, Nikolic failed to beat Bendik with a pair of chances.
After the break, Orlando looked to play more defensively, and Chicago became far too deliberate in trying to patiently break down the Lions. The Fire possessed the ball for 70% of the second period but had trouble fashioning good scoring chances. Orlando players dove and slid in front of passes and shots, giving their bodies to the cause in front of Bendik’s goal.
“It helped us in a way, because they have some speed and their guys didn’t adjust well to not having much time and space,” Johnson said of parking the bus.
Meanwhile, on the other end, Orlando City created no shots in the second half.
Michael de Leeuw got a head to a cross in the 56th minute but Bendik was there to collect.
Three minutes later, Kreis sacrificed Rivas for Kaká, making his return from a calf injury. Unfortunately, the captain wasn’t able to have any effect on the offense as the Lions parked the bus in front of Bendik’s net.
In the 67th minute, disaster struck again. An onrushing Nocerino, who hadn’t even committed a foul in the match, stuck out a boot to meet an oncoming airborne ball. Matt Polster moved into his path at the last second and the Italian’s studs found Polster’s rear end instead of the ball. Unkel went straight to the red card again and the Lions were down to eight field players with still 23 minutes plus stoppage to go.
“When you go down to nine, you’re certainly just playing for the draw,” Kreis said. “But when we were down to 10, as you saw, we didn’t bring in Sutter right away. We wanted to shift Will over to the right back. We wanted to keep attacking-minded players out there to see if we could hit them on the break. We weren’t throwing in the towel by any means. At halftime, I’m talking to the coaching staff about how we were going to win the game, not about how we were going to draw the game. So, all of our decisions were bending that way until we get the second ejection and then it’s just like ‘how are we going to hold on?’”
But Chicago continued to be complacent in the attack, although Veljko Paunović tried to instill life in his club by bringing on Arturo Alvarez, Djordje Mihailovic, and David Arshakyan. But most of Chicago’s efforts continued to be from distance above the box or through hopeful crosses into the box that were met time and time again by Spector and Pereira or caught by Bendik. In a last-ditch desperate effort, the Fire sent everyone into the attack and ended up finding the crossbar twice in stoppage time — first Polster, then Arshakyan.
“We needed a little bit of luck there,” Bendik said after the game.
Finally, the whistle mercifully blew and a shattered Orlando City team had earned the hardest point of the season.
“To be down a man for — what were we down a man, at least 60 minutes? — and then two men for as long as we were tonight...it was incredible. Nothing short of fantastic,” Kreis said. “Chicago for me is a very, very, very good team right now, so to be able to get a shutout with 11 players says something, but with nine, says a completely other thing.”
“When you feel like everything’s against you, it kind of rallies you in a way and unites you,” Johnson said. “Our group understood. We have worked in training with numbers down. We were well prepared. We feel united and the support of the fans was also special.”
Orlando City now has kept two straight clean sheets to rebound from a six-game winless streak.
“We’re getting back to who we were,” said Johnson. “We lost our identity, if you will, for a little bit there. We started trying to get a little clever. Now we’re back to who we are and so the shutouts feel good. On a night like tonight, I think the best case scenario was 0-0. You’re never happy not to win at home, but on a night when you have nine guys against 11 at this level, it’s pretty difficult to do any better than a point.”
Orlando City gets a bit of a breather with the international break. The Lions’ next game will be Wednesday, June 14 against Miami FC in U.S. Open Cup fourth round action. The next MLS match for City will be Saturday, June 17 when the Montreal Impact visit Orlando City Stadium.