Orlando City led much of the game but couldn’t hold off LAFC’s dynamic attack toward the end as the teams played to a 2-2 draw in front of a crowd of 22,371 at Exploria Stadium. The visitors grabbed the lead early but Nani responded immediately afterwards and Benji Michel gave City (9-13-8, 35 points) a lead that lasted until the 78th minute in a game that had its share of controversy. Diego Rossi nabbed the late equalizer for LAFC (19-4-6, 63 points).
It was Orlando’s first point in the series, albeit only in two meetings.
The Lions felt hard done by a disallowed goal by Uri Rosell due to a foul given after contact between Michel and goalkeeper Tyler Miller for a 50/50 aerial ball and it appeared the LAFC stopper initiated the contact. There was also a potential handling call not given when Miller came out of his area but referee Alan Kelly and the AR both felt that the entire ball did not leave the box. Regardless, the Lions had a chance to put the game away late but hit the post just one minute before the tying goal was scored.
“I’m very proud of the players. I thought the effort they gave tonight was excellent,” Head Coach James O’Connor said after the match. “I thought the commitment was fantastic. When you look at how good LAFC are, you look at how we managed the game, and you look at all the problems we caused them, on another night we would have won the game.”
With several players out with injury or international duty, Orlando City was happy to welcome right back Ruan back to the starting lineup, with Kyle Smith moving to the left side of the central defense pairing of Robin Jansson and Lamine Sané. The midfield consisted of Rosell, Cristian Higuita, and Dillon Powers. Nani, Dom Dwyer, and Michel made up the forward line. Brian Rowe took his customary position in goal.
Orlando got the game’s first scoring opportunity as Michel won a corner kick in the second minute. Nani’s cross on the ground found Sané, who shot wide. Adama Diomande fired wide from the right two minutes later as the game went back and forth.
In the 10th minute a momentary lapse by the Lions led to essentially a 3-on-the-keeper break for LAFC. Adrien Perez rounded Rowe but the ball ended up out wide on the left. When Perez tried to drop a pass back to Diomande, Rowe was still there and pounced on it.
But the visitors took the lead in the 12th minute anyway. Off a short corner, a ball was played into the box. Sané stuck out a foot to deflect the pass but it ended up with Perez, who shot the ball off Dwyer, off Rowe, and into the net to make it 1-0.
The lead didn’t last long. Off the ensuing kickoff, Higuita sent a pass through the back line off the heel of a defender that fell perfectly for Nani, who chipped Miller to make it 1-1 in the 13th minute.
“I think when you look at the reaction to the goal, an early goal like that, it’s a testament to the players,” O’Connor said. “I think there was no period where you felt as if we were intimidated. I felt as if we had a right good go at them tonight. I think the reaction was excellent.”
LAFC tried to regain the lead through Diomande in the 18th minute, as he fired a shot in from outside the area but it was a comfortable save for Rowe. Two minutes later, the Lions struck again.
On the best buildup of the first half, Nani fed Higuita a pass and the Colombian slipped a ball through for Ruan running down the right channel. The fullback sent in a low cross and Michel pounced on it and slammed it into the back of the net, giving the Lions a 2-1 lead in the 20th minute.
Most of the rest of the first half was uneventful. LAFC controlled most of the possession but Orlando didn’t allow many chances. Diomande and Perez each fired wide but the chances were few and far between after the Michel goal.
The Lions took their 2-1 advantage into the locker room. LAFC led in shots, 7-3 (2-2 on target), possession (70%-30%), and passing accuracy (91%-73%) but Orlando held the advantage.
LAFC pushed for the equalizer after the break and nearly had it in the 51st minute. Perez put the ball in the net after slipping in behind but he was just a fraction offside. The play was reviewed by the VAR but no clear error was made and the call stood.
Five minutes later it was Rosell’s turn to see a goal disallowed. Michel went up for an aerial 50/50 ball moving parallel to the end line around the top of the six. Miller came off his line and made contact, then went to ground as Rosell fired the ball into the net for what would have been his first goal with Orlando.
Kelly blew the play dead for a foul and O’Connor was visibly upset on the sideline after the call.
“It looked like a goal to me,” O’Connor said. “I think probably the safest thing for me to do would point you toward the league and the referees and ask them. From my standpoint it looked a goal.”
The Lions who hadn’t played much in recent weeks — mainly Higuita and Powers — started to visibly tire near the 70-minute mark and Higuita said he needed to be subbed off after experiencing cramping in his legs. Higuita came out for Chris Mueller in the 73rd and LAFC began to find more space in the attacking third.
The Lions had a chance to put the game away in the 77th minute. Nani sent a gorgeous cross into the area and substitute striker Santiago Patino knocked it off the right post.
Seconds later, Mueller fizzed a cross through the six but nobody was making a back-post run and it turned into a goal kick. LAFC scored on its next foray down the field. Rossi, who had largely been held in check all night, slipped behind Jansson just as Diomande fed a ball through. It was perfectly weighted and Rossi found the net to level things up in the 78th minute.
The Lions had some half chances to grab a late winner. Jansson and Mueller both had shots blocked after a corner kick in the 86th minute. Moments later, Miller appeared to take the ball out of the box, which could have given Orlando a dangerous free kick, but it wasn’t called. Screencaps can be pretty deceiving but this is the best look of it:
A few minutes later, Lee Nguyen baited Kelly into giving LAFC a free kick by making contact with Mueller just as Orlando was breaking in on goal.
“I think when the officials maybe go back and have a look at it, I think they’ll perhaps be a little bit disappointed with their performance,” O’Connor said.”
After five minutes of stoppage the match was over and Orlando had either gained a point in the playoff race or dropped two against the league leaders, depending on how you look at it.
LAFC had more shots (13-7), shots on target (4-2), and possession (63%-37%), and was the better passing side (88%-74%). Orlando did what it needed to do, getting into open areas and creating in transition on offense and keeping the middle locked down defensively until a momentary lapse let Rossi get in.
“Obviously we’re sad with the result but we’re also very happy because of the way we played against one of the best teams in the league,” Higuita said.
The Lions are four points in back of New England for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot and just two behind the Montreal Impact. Orlando will finish with New England at home, Houston and Cincinnati on the road, and Chicago at home.
The Lions are back in action next Saturday at home against the New England Revolution in a critical match-up.