Things looked bad for Orlando City when Nani was sent off in the second half and the Columbus Crew tied the game moments later. But the Lions showed resilience and Benji Michel scored a late winner in a 2-1 victory at Exploria Stadium. Orlando (11-3-8, 41 points) clinched a home playoff game with the win and can finish no worse than fourth in the Eastern Conference. It was the Lions’ fourth consecutive win over the Crew (11-6-5, 38 points), who still haven’t won a road match in 2020.
Chris Mueller opened the scoring but Harrison Afful equalized just after Nani was sent off when referee Ramy Touchan inexplicably ruled that he had erred in giving the captain only a yellow card for a challenge that didn’t even look like much of a foul. Nevertheless, the Lions were able to find a second goal after that and prevent the Crew from getting good looks at goal down the stretch.
It was the first time Orlando City had gone down a man and then went on to score a goal to win a game.
“Tonight it’s an honor for me to coach these guys and I give the credit to them,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja after the match. “It was their heart, and the three points against a very good rival. And we secured a spot for the playoffs and a home game, which is another objective accomplished.”
Pareja’s lineup included Pedro Gallese in goal behind a back line of Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Andres Perea and Junior Urso played central midfield with Mauricio Pereyra dropping into available pockets. Nani and Chris Mueller bracketed Tesho Akindele in the attack. Daryl Dike had the night off due to a non-COVID-related illness.
Orlando City had a dominant first half against the visitors, but repeatedly missed the target, made the wrong final decision, or saw a shot saved by Eloy Room. The Lions kept the ball in the Crew half for much of the first 45 minutes and fashioned several good scoring chances but could only cash in on one of them.
Jonathan Mensah’s poor pass led to a golden opportunity for Orlando in the 10th minute. His pass was picked off by Mueller, who spotted Akindele breaking in down the left. He gave Tesho a soft pass, which allowed the defense to come in from behind and deflect it away.
Moments later there were shouts for handball on Pedro Santos and it did appear that the ball hit the Columbus winger on the arm but nothing was called and there appeared to be no video review at the next stoppage of play.
The Lions should have gone in front in the 14th minute when Urso was left wide open at the penalty spot. He took the pass, turned to goal and fired just wide under no pressure at all.
Orlando continued to fire shots off defenders, high, or wide of the net from good spots over the next several minutes. But the Lions finally broke through in the 26th minute. Pereyra got in the way of a Harrison Afful pass and fed to Mueller, who fired home his 10th goal to open the scoring. Pereyra took sole possession of the team’s assist lead with his seventh.
Smith nearly scored on consecutive shots in the 30th but was robbed blind by Room, who made a pair of outstanding saves to keep the game at 1-0.
Lucas Zelarayan headed a shot at Gallese in the 40th minute after the Crew’s first spell of sustained pressure. That was the last decent look for either side in the opening period and the Lions held their slim advantage at the break.
Orlando led in shots (10-5), shots on target (3-2), corners (6-0), passing accuracy (87%-80%), and possession (57%-43%). At one point before Mueller’s goal, the Lions had held more than 60% of the ball, before Columbus had a late spell of possession.
Shortly after the restart, the game changed dramatically. Nani went to ground while seemingly winning the ball, but he caught a Crew player on the follow through. Touchan gave him a yellow card and awarded a free kick to Columbus in a dangerous area. It was a bit surprising to even see him go to the monitor but he did, and it was even more surprising when he showed Nani a straight red. Orlando went down to 10 men in the 52nd minute.
“We reviewed it. Nothing happened,” Pareja said of the play. “We all make mistakes and we assume this is a part of the game. The game gives us the possibility to be fair, and we have to be fair. It was not a red card.”
Columbus equalized four minutes after Nani left the pitch. The ball deflected off of Smith and got headed into the area. It fell for Pedro Santos, who laid off for Afful to smash into the net past Gallese, tying the game at 1-1 in the 56th minute. The momentum had changed and it seemed like the Crew might go on to take all three points.
Orlando City played with great determination after conceding and prevented the Crew from getting good looks at goal, even though they were on the ball a lot more. The Lions looked for opportunities to hit on the counter through Michel, who came on in the 70th for Akindele, who had worked tirelessly all night on the press and also with his hold-up play and timely runs.
Michel won a free kick with his first touch of the match and the Lions again thought the Crew handled the ball in the box, as the ball appeared to ping off the arm of Aboubacar Keita. Touchan reviewed the play this time but ruled that there was no foul for handball in the area.
Pereyra lofted a long ball for Michel in the 84th goal to start the winning sequence. With his back to goal, Michel headed the ball up and behind himself, then turned inside of Keita and got to the ball first, chesting it down and slotting home his fifth goal of the season between Room’s legs, restoring Orlando City’s lead.
“It just means a lot, being able to reach this accomplishment in front of my friends, my family, the city I grew up in,” Michel said, when asked what it meant to him as a Homegrown Player to give his team its first ever home playoff game with the goal. “It’s just a feeling that you just cannot describe it’s just so many emotions, going into it.”
Pereyra notched his eighth assist of the season on the play. He said after the game that he knew he was going to be subbed off soon, and he was tired, but he wanted to try one more time to spring Michel.
“I say, ‘okay this maybe will be my last ball,’ so that’s why I tried to shoot over the defender,” Pereyra said. “And then Benji made the rest, of course. He controlled, he’s fast, he made the difference, and then he scored. It’s great for him and for us.”
City did well from that point on to keep the Crew on the fringes of the area, and Columbus settled for lumping balls into the area, where the Lions had five defenders waiting every time. After an interminable eight minutes of stoppage time, Touchan blew the final whistle and Orlando had its third win in a row.
For the game, the Lions out-shot the Crew (13-11), with both teams getting four on target. With the extra man for most of the second half, Columbus was able to take the possession advantage (50.7%-49.3%), but Orlando was the more accurate passing team (85%-83%).
“I think they have done a great job on overcoming many obstacles,” Pareja said of his team’s play in 2020. “Since we got here, what I have seen is just this side of the players. They know the challenges will come and they know that we were not at the beginning of the season the team where everybody was expecting big things. And I think they they understood that and they embraced that barrier and, and they overcome [it] together, as a group.”
Orlando City’s four straight wins against the Crew marks the first time in club history that the Lions have beaten an opponent four times in a row.
“Today was a heavy day for us. It was difficult, and I think we showed again that we can keep thinking about big things for Orlando City,” Pareja said.
Orlando City will close the regular season Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. when the Lions host Nashville SC. Nani will miss that match unless the red card is rescinded, and Pereyra will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation.