Orlando City couldn’t rally from a 2-0 hole and eventually saw their comeback attempt fall short in a 2-1 home loss to league-leading D.C. United. The Lions conceded twice on set pieces in the first half and simply couldn’t convert enough chances to come from behind in front of 22,481 fans at Orlando City Stadium.
D.C. United (3-0-1, 10 points) won on the road at Orlando (1-2-2, 5 points) for the first time since 2015, snapping the Lions’ 3-0-1 home streak against the Black and Red. Dom Dwyer pulled a goal back in the second half and City had plenty of good scoring chances to equalize but just couldn’t put a second past Bill Hamid.
The game hinged on two set pieces and each had its share of controversy, although the second was by far the more questionable and it left Head Coach James O’Connor livid in his post-game press conference. Normally someone who downplays questions about officiating, O’Connor was visibly upset about the second goal in particular and it was clear that several of the controversial calls from last year are still on the coach’s mind.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve had it in game after game — Columbus away last year, D.C. had an incident, New York at the start of this year,” he said pounding the table in his postgame press conference. “How many more times? The players go out and give an incredible second-half performance — absolutely incredible — and yet we come off and we lose the game again through no fault of our own. How many more times?
“So for me, when I look at it, it’s like yeah we’ve got VAR, but why bother? They don’t even look. And you look at it and the whole stadium can see. It’s mind boggling stuff.”
O’Connor made only two changes from the starting lineup that won at New York last Saturday, inserting Lamine Sané in for the injured Alex De John and Dwyer for rookie Santiago Patino.
Before some fans had found their seats, the visitors were up 1-0. Robin Jansson was called for a handball out near the sideline on a wicked hard cross attempt that caught his arm on the way in. You know Orlando’s history with handball calls, so you can guess what happened next. D.C. scored on the ensuing free kick as Ruan was overmatched trying to defend Steve Birnbaum, who headed in the Wayne Rooney cross from point-blank range in the sixth minute.
“When you look at the first set piece, we’ve fallen asleep on the set piece,” O’Connor said.
Orlando City should have equalized almost immediately. Dwyer’s cross found a wide-open Nani in the eighth minute but the Portuguese star sent his thunderous header over the bar from less than 10 yards out, squandering an excellent scoring opportunity.
Nani got another header chance in the 17th minute off a corner kick but he sent the attempt straight at goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
D.C. doubled the lead in the 30th minute after a challenge in the corner gave United a free kick. Dwyer had gone out to hound Rooney and swiped at the ball with his right foot. Despite not making contact, Rooney immediately appealed to referee Armando Villarreal and was awarded a free kick.
After the match, Villarreal answered the pool reporter’s written questions about the foul and stated that he viewed Dwyer’s action as an attempt to kick Rooney — not the ball — and awarded the free kick. Although contact isn’t strictly required for a foul to be given, Villarreal avoided the question of whether he saw any contact by petulantly replying “see above answer.”
Rooney himself said Dwyer didn’t make contact with him on the play that led to the goal but he agreed with the referee’s decision of intent.
“I seen him coming and I got out the way because if I didn’t it could’ve been a serious injury and again, as the referee said, it’s intent,” Rooney said. “I’m not stupid enough to stand in there and let him take my knee off. I got out the way. By the way he come into the tackle he’s forced me to lose control of the ball, which is a free kick.”
Rooney set the ball several yards from where the foul was committed — near the corner at the sideline — and actually started his run-up from where the foul occurred, giving himself a little more leverage and a better angle on his delivery, then sent his free kick sailing directly into the net at the back post while Frederic Brillant bowled over Brian Rowe. Rowe would likely not have reached that ball regardless, but you still aren’t allowed to smash into the goalkeeper. Villarreal appeared to discuss the play with the VAR but the play did not get reviewed.
“I think when you look at the second set piece, it’s embarrassing, really at this stage. I’m at a stage now when players need to be protected because when you look at the foul on Brian Rowe is so obvious. It goes to VAR. Everybody can see it. And for some reason we don’t...what’s the point of having VAR? He didn’t even go and look at it. Yet everyone can see that it’s a foul.”
“It’s unbelievable to be honest,” Dwyer said about the foul call that led to the goal. “After all the hard work we put in tonight, it’s sad we have to look back and that’s one of the turning points. I thought maybe having VAR would help the referees but it seems to be doing the opposite.”
The Lions had the last decent scoring chance of the half when Nani stepped into a shot in first-half stoppage time but he sent his bullet right at Hamid and the teams went to the break with the visitors holding a 2-0 lead.
Orlando out-shot D.C. 7-2 in the first half (3-2 on target) and held more of the possession (55%-45%). The visitors were slightly more accurate passers (82%-81%) in the opening half.
The Lions came out more aggressive in the second half, pushing more numbers up the field and just accepting that the occasional counter was the price to pay for trying to claw back into the game. D.C. got the first good opportunity of the second half. Luciano Acosta blasted a shot from above the box that Rowe tipped over the bar in the 49th minute.
From that point on, the game was almost all one-way traffic the other direction. Two minutes after Acosta’s chance, Dwyer sent a ball past Hamid that rolled agonizingly close to the back post but missed just wide. Joao Moutinho — who had a fantastic game at left wingback for City — was too far away to get there before it bounced out for a goal kick. A minute later, Moutinho fizzed a wicked cross through the area that was only an inch or two out of Dwyer’s reach. Moutinho’s attacks continued in the 54th minute with a cross/shot that floated over Hamid and just missed the upper 90 on the right side of goal.
D.C. should have put the game away in the 57th minute off a turnover but Junior Moreno hit the right post on a shot from just inside the top of the box. The ball deflected harmlessly out for a goal kick.
Two minutes later, O’Connor sent Chris Mueller and Sebas Mendez into the game and withdrew Sacha Kljestan and Uri Rosell and it gave the Lions a big lift. Four minutes after the switch, Mueller took a pass from Nani and drove to the end line to the right of goal, then sent an inch-perfect pass across the six-yard box for Dwyer to head past Hamid, making it 2-1 in the 63rd minute. It was the first goal conceded by D.C. United this season.
“It was fantastic,” Dwyer said of the buildup to the goal. “I think Nani was great all game. Chris brought a tremendous amount of energy when he came on the field. He’s grown every single game. It was a fantastic ball in from him and I’ve just got to put it away and it was pretty simple.”
Orlando pushed hard for the equalizer, with Ruan getting his cross knocked out for a corner just a minute after Dwyer’s goal. The cloud of purple smoke had not yet cleared when Dwyer got a chance in the 65th minute, but he missed the net and all he could do was grab his head in dismay.
From there it was just more near misses the rest of the way. Mueller sent a shot wide in the 75th minute, cutting in from the right. Hamid fought off a Dwyer long-range shot in the 83rd. Jansson shot just wide off a corner kick that somehow landed in the box at his feet. Mueller capped it off with a stoppage time shot off the left post and a shot just wide in the 93rd minute.
Orlando players collapsed after the final whistle, having done all they could to fight back and take something from the game, but in the end they just weren’t clinical enough in front of goal and they didn’t defend those first-half set pieces well enough.
The Lions out-shot D.C. 16-4 (5-3 on target) and out-possessed the visitors (54%-46%), also holding the edge in passing accuracy (78%-77%). But United leave with three huge points and Orlando is still looking for a home win in 2019 (0-1-2).
“I thought we had a fantastic performance. It’s a shame that the referees keep making a difference,” Dwyer said. “We’re upbeat. The group sees a lot of positives from tonight. We played very well. I think we had a lot of chances and we concede off two set pieces. That’s just how it goes. We’ve got to defend them a little bit better but there’s a lot of positives to take tonight.”
Lost in the shuffle was rookie Benji Michel making his debut, coming on for Nani, who appeared to come off complaining about his leg. He didn’t make much impact though, managing only six touches in his 12+ minutes.
Orlando City will again go for its first home win of 2019 on Saturday night when the Colorado Rapids come to town.