Orlando City had just tied the match at 2-2 in the 82nd minute on Sacha Kljestan’s penalty kick goal. It was the second goal in two minutes and Orlando City Stadium was rocking.
That penalty was drawn when Chris Mueller made a cross into the penalty area, attempting to get the ball to striker Dom Dwyer, who had made a far-post run. While tracking the ball in the air, Dwyer took a shoulder in the chest from Alvas Powell and crumpled to the grass. It was similar to two plays that had happened to Stefano Pinho and Josué Colmán earlier in the game — both just out wide of the box — but neither of those was seen as a foul by referee Baldomero Toledo, who finally blew his whistle on a Portland player impeding an attacking Lion.
The third time was the charm. Powell cut off Dwyer’s run, stuck in his shoulder, and the whistle blew. Kljestan leveled the game.
But Dwyer wasn’t satisfied with that. In the 84th minute, he went sliding into the six, coming within inches of getting onto a Kljestan cross that would have made it 3-2. A minute later, Toledo stopped play so trainers could attend to both Powell and Portland goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, who were down on the pitch. Dwyer used the stoppage in play as an opportunity to rally his team.
The Lions’ Designated Player and star man could be seen shouting at his teammates, pumping his fists and clapping, obviously urging his mates to push on for a late winner, even when a two-goal rally for a draw would have been a welcome result on many nights.
“I said we’re going to win this game,” Dwyer said after the match about the message he was giving his fellow Lions. “I was letting everyone know we’re going to win this game. I just believed at that point that it was going to happen. We had too much momentum. Guys were confident. Guys had a bit of energy left. They (the Timbers) were looking tired. I was just screaming to everyone to keep pushing forward, we’re going to get another chance and we did.”
That chance came in the 87th minute and Dwyer did nearly all the work himself. He checked over his shoulder to ensure he was level with the last defender and locked eyes with right back RJ Allen. Behind the play, Kljestan motioned for Allen to send Dwyer in. Allen obliged by lifting a perfectly weighted ball over the defense for Dwyer to run onto.
Dom had both defenders beaten initially, but he had to come in from an angle on the right side, and the Timbers recovered quickly, closing down the space. Dwyer put on the brakes and lost the ball behind him momentarily. When he went to ground trying to retrieve the ball, it seemed the scoring chance had passed by like so many others in the game.
But then Dom quickly got back up.
He spun around and had the ball on his left foot, but now he had two defenders in front to deal with, in addition to Gleeson. With a lightning-quick crossover move, Dwyer put the ball on his right foot, losing both Bill Tuiloma and Larrys Mabiala in the process, and smashed the ball inside the near post to beat Gleeson, sending Orlando City Stadium and his teammates on the pitch into a frenzy. A raucous celebration in the corner ensued.
“Every great team needs a goal scorer,” Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the match. “Every great team needs somebody that’s going to put the ball in the back of the net on a consistent basis and Dom is proving himself to be that for us this year, no doubt.”
The amount of energy Dwyer had spent throughout the match — being marked out of much of it by a resolute and organized Portland defense, sagging inward to clog up the middle — made it an incredible finish to an exciting match. He didn’t even have enough strength remaining in his legs to complete his trademark flip.
“I’m pretty sure you saw the duffed backflip,” he said. “I didn’t have much left in my legs but I had a go. I was going to take my shirt off but I didn’t want a yellow card. I got one a couple of minutes later anyway so it’s probably good I didn’t.”
It was the kind of performance that wouldn’t surprise many longtime fans of Orlando City — we’re talking back to the USL days — who have seen heroics before from Dwyer. But there was little doubt that his passion truly shone through in the late stages of Sunday’s improbable win.
That passion helped his team find victory in a game that had seemed lost just minutes earlier. It may have provided a spark to bigger and better things ahead this season.