After 10-man Orlando City’s unlikely come-from-behind 1-1 draw in the 2018 season opener, Justin Meram said he didn’t expect his first match here to feature a penalty against and a player sent off. Welcome to Orlando, Mr. Meram.
The Lions conceded on a set piece out of nowhere and then went down a man before rallying the troops and setting up Stéfano Pinho’s first MLS goal in the 93rd minute to send the sellout crowd of 25,527 home with a happy point. Pinho’s goal was his fourth in two games at Orlando City Stadium but this time he was the hero instead of the villain as he lifted the Lions to a hard-fought point in a match fraught with adversity.
“I think this was a fantastic example of what our team is capable of,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the game. “There was some very good soccer tonight. We out-possessed D.C. United on a night when we were down a man for 60 minutes, so that says something. But I do believe that there’s still lots of room for improvement, obviously.”
The visitors sat back with the lead — provided by new boy and former Atlanta United midfielder Yamil Asad — and the extra man throughout the second half, and it proved their undoing.
With several regulars out with injury or suspension, Kreis turned in a lineup sheet that featured some surprises, including a pair of rookies and Victor “PC” Giro in the midfield. Joe Bendik was no surprise in goal, behind a back line of Mohamed El-Munir, Amro Tarek, Jonathan Spector, and Scott Sutter. Cam Lindley played holding midfield in his first MLS start, behind Will Johnson and PC on either side of Yoshimar Yotun in the No. 10 role. Chris Mueller and Meram made up the strike force in the 4-4-2. The actual shape varied throughout the match, however, as players wove in and out, playing off of each other and it was sometimes interesting to see where everyone was on the pitch.
D.C. got on the front foot first, with a dangerous cross into the box just seconds into the match. Rookie Lindley then gifted a scoring chance with a turnover with perhaps his first touch and United broke in alone, 4-on-2. Ulises Segura got on the end of it and took a shot but Spector recovered to force a bad attempt.
Orlando’s first good opportunity came in the seventh minute when a free kick nearly fell for Justin Meram in the box but it skipped away and D.C. cleared. From there, the Lions started climbing into the match and creating some half-chances but had trouble beating Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant in the box.
United got the best early opportunity when video review overturned a no-call and awarded the visitors a penalty in the 19th minute for a Johnson handball just inside the box. It seemed a bit harsh, as Johnson was only a few yards away from Darren Mattocks.
“Initially I thought there would be no way that the penalty decision would go against us,” Kreis said, “because from my point of view it looked like arms were down and anytime there’s a ball that’s played that quickly from somebody’s foot to somebody’s arm in the penalty box on really what looks like a non-decisive situation...ask yourself a question, if it doesn’t hit his hand, where does it go? But I haven’t seen any video on it so I could be completely wrong.”
Joe Bendik came to Johnson’s rescue with a fantastic save to tip the ball off the crossbar. Spector dove to head the rebound out of danger.
D.C. broke through in the 32nd minute. Lindley was late on a challenge and caught Asad out wide of the penalty area. Asad took the ensuing free kick and it curled toward the back post narrowly clearing two would-be United headers and it froze Bendik and skipped into the corner of the net to make it 1-0.
Late in the half, the game turned on another video review. PC caught Asad while in the air and referee Fotis Bazakos thought about it and eventually booked the Orlando midfielder. Then, just as D.C. was taking the ensuing free kick, a call from VAR Geoff Gamble prompted Bazakos to take a second look. For the second time, he changed his mind, showing PC a red card in the 41st minute for violent conduct.
“I think my player’s fouled first, honestly,” Kreis said of the challenge that sent off PC. “He was pushed from the back going up on an aerial challenge. Once he gets pushed from the back he’s just fighting to try to get his balance back. But sure, an arm was flailing and hit the opponent’s head.”
The Lions were able to see out the remainder of the first half, plus five added minutes, and go into the break down by a goal. Possession was nearly 50/50 at that point but United had a 7-4 advantage in shots (3-0 on goal). Paul Arriola’s 44th minute shot that Bendik stopped was the final good opportunity for either team in the first half.
Neither team made halftime changes and United felt comfortable to not press. The Lions took advantage, holding the ball for 61% of the second period and generating some excellent play through the midfield despite their numbers disadvantage.
The first warning sign for D.C. came in the 51st minute when Mueller smashed a shot from a tight angle off the outside netting. Meram nearly got to a cross from Mueller in the 54th but Ousted’s outstretched arm got in the way and Bazakos gave a foul even though it was anyone’s ball and Meram had the better position.
Meram almost set up Yotun for the equalizer in the 57th minute. His cross fell onto Yotun’s left foot and only Frederic Brillant’s last-ditch intercession to clear it off the line kept the visitors on top.
Pinho came on a minute later for Mueller, making his MLS debut. Three minutes later, he appeared to be fouled by Steve Birnbaum in the box on a cross into the box and needed a minute to collect himself after a clash of heads got him just under the eye. Birnbaum appeared to get his arms up over Pinho’s back as the ball came in but no foul was called.
Meram and Yotun continued to work magic in the midfield, and Kreis sent Richie Laryea on for Lindley to try to add to the attacking flow. For about the next 10 minutes, it seemed the Lions were just a foot or so from finding the perfect pass or cross, but nothing quite materialized.
Then El-Munir made perhaps the play of the game to keep it a one-goal game.
After a cleared free kick, the ball fell for Mattocks already behind the defense around midfield but on his own side of the line, keeping him onside. Mattocks, one of the faster players in the league, seemed sure to have a breakaway chance on Bendik. But El-Munir ran him down at the end and knocked the ball away before the United striker could worry Joe with a shot.
Great recovery run and last-ditch challenge by Mohamed El-Munir to block the shot from Mattocks, one of the fastest players in #MLS. Crucial play. #OCSC #DCU #ORLvDC #MLSisBack pic.twitter.com/KqZeBCGawH— Jason Foster (@JogaBonito_USA) March 4, 2018
“I’m speechless to be honest,” Meram said of the El-Munir recovery. “That’s pure determination, that’s pure heart of ‘I’m going to leave everything on the line for my teammates.’ Without that play we don’t tie this game.”
The ensuing corner kick pinged dangerously around the box before Bendik caught it.
Time wound down and the game entered five more minutes of added time that proved to be D.C.’s downfall. In the 93rd minute, Spector got forward and played a give-and-go with Meram, who slotted a beautiful ball behind the defense. Spector had continued his run and the center back got all the way to the end line before squaring a perfect pass to Pinho at the top of the six. The Brazilian took just one touch to equalize.
What a wonderful time for your first MLS goal! Pinho surely steals a point for 10 men Orlando at the death!! pic.twitter.com/gfYUASD7fG— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) March 4, 2018
“I’m so happy to score and help Orlando,” Pinho said. “I saw the fans go crazy. It was amazing for me.”
“That’s how we drew it up in training,” Meram joked about the tying play. “That’s a heads-up play by Spector to make a run and keep going and that just shows the determination and the heart of this team and I love that.”
The stadium erupted as the Lions scored their third opening day stoppage-time tying goal in four seasons. Neither team got a final good look for a game-winner but the draw definitely felt more like a win to Orlando City all things considered.
“Really pleased with the performance,” Kreis said after the match. “Really pleased with the effort level, the commitment level, the togetherness the team showed. The never giving up. The true grit that was shown by our squad was second to none. I couldn’t be happier. Obviously we ended up getting a point out of the affair, but had we not gotten that last-minute goal, I’d be just as happy.”
“It’s a great way to start the season when our backs were against adversity for a little bit,” added Meram.
Orlando City will be back in action next Saturday when Adrian Heath returns to the City Beautiful with Minnesota United.