Orlando City returned home to Exploria Stadium after a brief trip to New Jersey to face the Columbus Crew. The Crew came to Orlando riding high following a huge win against the first place Philadelphia Union on Sunday, while Orlando City looked to win their third game in a row. What did we learn from this hectic 2-1 victory that clinched Orlando City its first ever home playoff game?
Questionable Officiating Stains An Otherwise Excellent Game
There’s no avoiding it. The match completely changed when Nani was sent off in the 52nd minute. It was the pivotal point in the game and by far the most controversial moment. At first glance, it looked like a foul by the captain on a heavy challenge. On first replay, it didn’t really look like a foul at all. But that wasn’t the opinion of referee Ramy Touchan, who gave the red following a VAR check. After the game subsided and watching it again, I do understand why the call was made (it was a heavy follow through on the tackle) but I can’t agree with it. Nani’s studs weren’t exposed, he didn’t make a ton of contact, so a red card is an extremely harsh and match-altering decision. I’m mostly just furious that a questionable referee decision nearly cost the Lions three points, but as the saying goes: Ball. Don’t. Lie.
More Magic from Maestro Mauricio
Mauricio Pereyra might be the single most influential player on this team. The diminutive midfielder has added class to the Orlando City midfield unseen since the legendary Kaká. His elite vision and quality on the ball proved lethal once again with a pair of assists against the Crew. In the first half, Pereyra’s energy and skill created several opportunities, including the assist to Chris Mueller in the 27th minute and a brilliant almost assist to Junior Urso in the 14th minute (that really should’ve been put away by Urso). His pressure and control of the ball helped Orlando dominate Columbus in the first half.
When Nani was sent off, Pereyra stepped up further, providing excellent leadership and keeping Orlando in the game despite being down a man. His second assist, a beautiful long ball over the top to Benji Michel in the 84th minute, was a moment of magic that you want out of a Designated Player. While a lot of credit goes to Michel for his brilliant control of the pass, Pereyra’s ball was absolutely perfect.
Pereyra did receive a bit of medical attention before being subbed off, but indicated to the press after the game that it was just routine cramping. He won’t be available on Sunday against Nashville due to yellow card accumulation, so he’ll have plenty of time to get back to 100% before the playoffs, and if the Lions get a fit Pereyra, MLS Cup is a legitimate possibility.
Missed Chances Nearly Prove Costly
It shouldn’t have been this close. Through the first half, Orlando City had several golden opportunities that the Lions absolutely should’ve capitalized on. In the first 15 minutes, the high press from the Lions created two golden chances, first with Mueller intercepting a poor Jonathan Mensah pass only to have his layoff for Tesho Akindele poked away by Artur, and then the aforementioned miss by Urso created by Pereyra.
Other than those two sitters, Kyle Smith was robbed of his first goal in Orlando City purple by a truly world class double save by Eloy Room (that first reaction save is one of the best I’ve ever seen in MLS). Orlando arguably should’ve been better with its half chances as well with several ambitious long shots wasting otherwise good opportunities. In the end, a bit of magic reclaimed the three points, but it was nearly a case of what could’ve been.
Elite Defense Dominates
The Orlando City defense has been elite as of late, and that certainly didn’t change against Columbus. With what little possession they had in the first half, the Crew weren’t able to generate any real opportunities. Center back Antonio Carlos was a monster, making several key interventions and keeping star Columbus striker Gyasi Zardes to a measly 22 touches and two shots.
Even after Nani was sent off, the defense didn’t waver, save for a moment of chaos four minutes after the red card. Following that goal, the defense only conceded three shots despite being down a man. Pedro Gallese wasn’t forced into any challenging saves as the back line and midfield clamped down the Columbus attack. Smith, starting in place of Kamal Miller at left back, was excellent defensively, winning back the ball countless times down the stretch. It was just an overall excellent display from the defense as a unit.
Role Players Continue To Shine
Pereyra, Nani, Mueller, and other stars have continued to play at an elite level, but several role players were astounding against Columbus. The aforementioned Smith played a huge part in limiting the offensive prowess of Columbus and was a beast in ball recovery. Andres Perea and Sebas Mendez were both excellent defensively while also dominating in possession, as both young midfielders completed over 80% of their passes. Perhaps the most unsung hero was striker Tesho Akindele, who made a huge impact without getting on the scoresheet. His runs routinely opened up space (particularly on Mueller’s goal) and his high work ethic and energy helped Orlando dominate with its high press.
What else did we learn from a wild night of soccer? Be sure to leave your takes in the comments below.