The Lions finally got a home win in 2019 but it was anything but easy. Orlando needed to come from behind twice against the Colorado Rapids to grab a late 4-3 victory at Orlando City Stadium in front of 22,450 on a rainy night.
The Rapids (0-4-2, 2 points) grabbed leads of 1-0 and 3-2 in the match but the resilient Lions were a threat to score all night and eventually put enough goals on the board to win the match when Nani converted a penalty in the 89th minute to lift City (2-2-2, 8 points) to the team’s first home win of the season. Orlando is still unbeaten in the series with the Rapids, improving to 4-0-1 in five meetings (3-0-0 in Orlando).
“You don’t want to be conceding three goals,” said Head Coach James O’Connor after the match. “As exciting and entertaining as it is for everybody to win — and it is, it’s great — but we don’t want to be like that every week. I certainly don’t.”
“Tonight was fantastic because we had so many opportunities and most of them we put inside the goal,” said Nani.
O’Connor made a few changes to the lineup, dropping center back Shane O’Neill and pushing Carlos Ascues to right center back. Tesho Akindele returned from his hamstring issue to start up top next to Dom Dwyer at forward. Nani slid back to the midfield alongside Sebas Mendez, Sacha Kljestan, and wingbacks Ruan and Joao Moutinho.
After the first six minutes were played between the penalty areas, both teams started attacking. Moutinho’s cross into the box in the sixth was the first good opportunity of the game, but it was knocked out for a corner by the defense. Two minutes later, Ruan sent a dangerous cross into the box that was deflected out by a defender but only as far as Kljestan, who had his shot blocked.
A minute later, the Rapids took the lead. Kei Kamara (who else?) pounced to make it 1-0. Dillon Serna’s cross into the box went about an inch over the head of a leaping Sané. Jansson didn’t expect the ball to get through and it bounced off his head and fell in behind, where Kamara won the race to the loose ball and poked it past Brian Rowe in the ninth minute.
The teams then exchanged set piece opportunities. After Dwyer saw a header blocked at the back post, the Rapids nearly scored on a direct free kick but Keegan Rosenberry’s effort went just wide.
Orlando kept attacking up the wings and nearly scored in the 21st. Moutinho got to the end line and crossed in for Dwyer but Deklan Wynne deflected it off his own goal post. Shortly after that the Lions changed shape after Ascues went down with an apparent leg injury. Uri Rosell came on and slotted into the midfield with Orlando going four at the back.
The Lions equalized in the 31st minute as Nani opened his Orlando City account. Ruan somehow nutmegged teammate Akindele just a couple yards in front of goal with a sizzling cross. Moutinho gathered it at the other side of the area and crossed it in for Nani to head home .
Colorado tried to pull that goal back quickly, earning a corner kick in the 33rd minute. But it was Orlando City that capitalized. The Lions cleared the cross out to Ruan, who blazed down the pitch on the counter attack. He crossed to Dwyer, who fired and saw his shot well saved by a diving Tim Howard, but it fell to the feet of Akindele who roofed the ball just under the crossbar to make it 2-1 with his second goal of the season.
The Ruan show continued for the rest of the half. First he turned Nicolas Mezquida inside out with a dribble (the man has a family, Ruan!) and then drew a yellow card on Kamara, who tried to pull him back by the shirt. Then the speedy Brazilian blew past Serna only to overcook his cross, hitting it over everyone.
Moutinho’s long ball in the 43rd minute sent Nani down the left. The Portuguese star found Dwyer in the box. Dom had trouble digging the ball out of his feet, but did manage to turn and shoot, but it was blocked. Two minutes later, Dwyer found space at the top of the area and got his shot on frame but Howard made another diving save, sticking out a palm to keep it 2-1 at the break.
Orlando led in shots at the break, 7-5 (4-2 on target). Colorado had the edge in possession (54.5%-45.5%) and passing accuracy (82.1%-74.9%).
Unfortunately, Mother Nature reared her ugly head at the half, with the delay lasting an hour before the game restarted due to lightning in the area.
The Rapids were by far the more energetic team after the long delay, holding possession, winning balls off sloppy midfield passes and trying to hit quickly on the counter. Rowe stopped a header from Kellyn Acosta in the 47th minute.
Orlando fizzed a couple crosses dangerously through the box after that but defender Axel Sjoberg blocked Ruan’s pass and Nani’s went harmlessly out the other side as no Lions made a run after he mesmerized the defense out on the left side.
Rowe made a big save to deny Kamara in the 59th off a dangerous cross by Keegan Rosenberry on a play that should have — but didn’t — serve as a warning sign for the Orlando defense in the second half. Two minutes later, Rosenberry got down the right channel on the counter and picked out Mezquida, who scored on a free header in the 61st minute to make it 2-2.
Ten minutes later, the visitors took the lead. Benny Feilhaber played a ball across left to right to Cole Bassett, who faked as if he would drive to his right. Once Jansson committed, Bassett cut back inside on his left foot and curled a shot around Rowe to make it 3-2 Colorado.
As the game moved into the late stages, Nani went down in the penalty area after contact with Acosta. Marrufo saw no foul there and a headed exchange took place between the two midfielders but ultimately it was much ado about nothing.
Dwyer headed a ball right at Howard from just a few yards out in the 79th and it started to look like Orlando would fall at home again. But then O’Connor introduced Chris Mueller for Mendez in the 80th and he once again lifted the team with his energy.
A minute after coming on, Mueller scored. Moutinho threw in the ball in the final third. It took a high bounce and Nani headed it toward goal. Akindele stuck out a leg and helped it on with a back heel and Mueller collected it, then slotted it home through Howard to tie the game at 3-3 in the 81st minute.
“I just tried to stay alive,” Mueller said. “The ball kind of floated into the box. I think it was Tesho that went up with one of the defenders. It kind of took a weird bounce. I took it down and just kept the ball low, tried to get it on target, and it ended up going right through the goalie’s legs.”
O’Connor spoke after the game about his decision to bring Mueller off the bench as a sub yet again.
“We sat down with Chris and I just said to him, ‘Listen, you’re not going to start this one,’” O’Connor said. “I said, ‘You’re really unlucky.’ But we just felt that there was potential for Chris to be able to come off the bench and impact the game like he has. And when you have a weapon like that and you look at the way the game may go or may not go, the biggest decision for us is, do we start him?
The easiest thing for us to do is start Chris tonight. Everyone would have expected it including them (the Rapids) to start the game. But when we looked at it, we thought we needed to be brave and we needed to maybe follow what our gut instinct was and bring him off the bench. Now when he goes and he does something like that (score), it’s incredible.”
The goal only urged the Lions on even more. Two minutes after Mueller’s goal, Ruan flashed a cross through the area that was just inches out of Dwyer’s reach at the back post, with a wide-open net in front of him. Four minutes later, another Ruan cross turned the game in Orlando’s favor. The Brazilian sent one into the area that Sjoberg tried to block with his head, but it ended up hitting his arm as well and Marrufo pointed to the spot even as Dwyer improbably missed an empty net from just a couple yards away. Nani stepped up to the spot, sent Howard the wrong way, and coolly completed his brace in the 89th minute, putting Orlando up, 4-3.
“It’s always good to score goals for the team,” said Nani shortly after netting his first two as a Lion. “It’s always good to help, but obviously it’s not the most important. We wanted to win for our fans. What they’ve been doing all (these) weeks is fantastic. I never saw that in my life. I’ve been playing for many teams and when the things are not going well, everyone knows how the fans normally react. These fans, they are special, so I wanted so badly to help the team to win and tonight we are very happy because we did and it was a great game, a fantastic game for our team.”
The Lions saw out the final minute plus four minutes of injury time without allowing Colorado an opportunity to equalize and the whistle signaled the end of Orlando’s first 2019 home victory.
City out-shot the Rapids, 16-10 (8-6 on target), with possession finishing about evenly split at 50/50. Colorado did pass slightly better (80%-76%) in the game.
O’Connor praised his star man after the match after Nani’s two-goal, one-assist performance.
“When you look at Nani, he’s a world-class player. We’re blessed to have somebody like that,” he said. “I think it shows you his professionalism and his mentality to have a reaction like that tonight. He’s got a phenomenal leap first half, scored a great header. And then the composure to take the penalty. He was cool as a cucumber and just slid it into the corner. I think when you look at his play and his experience and the way he’s trying to help the players it’s — as we’ve always said — very, very encouraging. It’s not just the technical aspect. It’s the leadership that he shows as well.”
Orlando City will travel west next weekend to take on Real Salt Lake in Utah on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.