Benji Michel’s 84th-minute goal — the rookie’s first in MLS play — was Orlando City’s only shot on target of the night but it was just enough to lift the Lions to a 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew at Exploria Stadium. Orlando (7-9-4, 25 points) completed the season sweep of the Crew (5-14-2, 17 points) although the game was far from perfect due in large part to it being the team’s third match in a single calendar week.
Orlando did not allow a single goal in the two meetings against the Crew, holding on late after conceding a tying goal in the 90th minute last Sunday and in the 96th minute on Wednesday. This time, the Lions held on and kept their fifth clean sheet of the season. The Crew has now lost five straight, are winless in nine (0-8-1) and have won just once in the last 15 matches (1-13-1).
“Massive, massive win for us tonight,” said Head Coach James O’Connor after the match. “I think we showed another great side, very positive, to be able to show that kind of toughness. I don’t think we played particularly well. I thought we looked very tired, which we knew. We expected that, so I think in a game like that, with the emotion of the other night we were always very wary of just what kind of energy we were going to have. So, we needed to have some grit. And I thought the boys showed tremendous character tonight.”
O’Connor made only four changes from Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup lineup, keeping Tesho Akindele and Chris Mueller up top, Sebas Mendez and Will Johnson in the midfield, and Ruan, Lamine Sané, and Robin Jansson on the back line. Brian Rowe returned to the starting lineup, with Adam Grinwis on the bench instead of Greg Ranjitsingh. Kamal Miller replaced Kyle Smith at left back, Carlos Ascues replaced Sacha Kljestan in the midfield, and Michel replaced Nani, who was unavailable as a precautionary measure due to food poisoning.
Columbus saw much of the possession in the opening half hour, fashioning the game’s first chance five minutes in. Pedro Santos torched Miller down the flank and sent in a ball for Gyasi Zardes, who rattled the crossbar with his shot.
Orlando’s only shot attempt of the first half came in the 11th minute when Miller smashed a shot just a little wide of the left post.
Much of Orlando’s attack came on the counter but the Lions were wasteful, missing open teammates or keeping their heads down and dribbling into traffic. Akindele had opportunities to find Michel and Mueller in the area but the former was cut out by the defense and the latter was too far out in front and all he could do was dribble a weak deflection in toward former teammate Joe Bendik.
Much of the half was spent in Orlando’s end setting up for corner kicks. Columbus got seven such opportunities in the first half but poor service was a problem for the visitors.
Neither team got a shot on target in the opening half, with Columbus holding a 6-1 advantage in attempts. The Crew held 56% of the possession and out-passed the Lions, 85%-83%.
The Lions were a tiny bit better in the second half, notching three shots and conceding only five, but still had a big hole in the midfield, sagging back defensively and trying to spring counters that never quite materialized. While the sagging midfield and the quality of central defenders Sané and Jansson prevented the Crew from generating much of a threat, the Orlando attack was nearly nonexistent. As a result, the visitors seemed the more likely team to score.
Without any grip in the center of the pitch, O’Connor’s option to bring on Dom Dwyer as a substitute was unlikely to bear fruit, but the fatigue of the week was apparent. Santiago Patino came on for Will Johnson and the team switched to a 4-2-3-1 for a bit but that went away when Uri Rosell checked in for Akindele in the 78th minute.
Before leaving, Akindele created a chance by sending a ball in for Patino, but the shot was deflected away for a corner in the 73rd.
Patino brought some much-needed energy to the proceedings, winning balls in his own defensive third and generating a bit of hold-up play down the right.
In the 84th minute the game finally turned Orlando’s way. Sané sent a fabulous ball up the right sideline for Ruan to run onto. The speedy fullback got past the defense and fizzed an inch-perfect cross for the onrushing Michel to slam home to break the scoreless deadlock.
Michel called his first MLS goal “a dream come true,” scoring it in front of The Wall.
“I just knew right away I had to get there, because I know Ruan,” said the Homegrown Player of his thoughts on seeing Sané serve the ball up the right wing. “He’s a pacey player and I knew he was going to get to the ball, so I had to make sure I went to the first post. I knew the ball was coming and I got my chance.”
Orlando then had to see the game out and the Crew threw numbers forward and generated a few good chances. Harrison Afful forced Rowe to make a diving save in the 88th minute as the visitors finally put their first shot on target.
After that, Zardes got a couple of free headers but couldn’t place them on frame. The first he headed directly into the ground and it bounced over the crossbar. The second was a lot closer, as Jansson tried desperately to hold him off.
After a nervy six minutes of stoppage time — which included the sending off of Dwyer for throwing an elbow up that caught Josh Williams — the final whistle blew on three hard-fought points for the Lions.
“It was a good battle,” Miller said. “Towards the end, Columbus brought everything.”
“Really, to be able to defend, put their bodies on the line, and the guys who have played so many minutes, to be able to push like that, is fantastic,” O’Connor said. “Great commitment from the players tonight.”
After conceding late goals twice this week already, Miller said the Lions were desperate to keep that from happening again.
“You could just tell (by) everyone’s demeanor and attitude and the tone in everyone’s voice, that we were not going to let that happen tonight, especially in front of our home fans who supported us the whole way,” Miller said. “We owed it to them and to ourselves not to let anyone slip.”
The Crew out-shot Orlando City, 11-4 (1-1 on target), possessed the ball 56.6% of the time, and was the better passing side (86%-83%), earning 10 corners to one for the Lions. But Michel’s blast was the game’s lone score and it was a gritty effort for a team playing its third match of the week. The Lions improved to 4-5-3 in the all-time series against the Crew (3-2-2 at home).
The Lions will finally get a breather. Kind of. Orlando City plays again in five days...at Portland.