Orlando City managed to concede three times — twice after the 88th minute — to a Nashville SC team that has struggled to put the ball in the net all season. With the meltdown, the Lions (11-4-8, 41 points) blew a late 2-1 lead and fell at Exploria Stadium for the first time all season, 3-2. Hany Mukhtar scored in the 88th minute and a completely unmarked Jhonder Cádiz added another in the 93rd minute to undo the lead over Nashville (8-7-8, 32 points) that Daryl Dike and Nani had provided.
It was Orlando’s first ever loss to Nashville in three meetings (1-1-1), snapped a three-game winning streak, and knocked the Lions down to fourth place in the final regular-season standings. The Cádiz goal was particularly troubling because it came on a late free kick that was drawn on a bit of a dive by Matt LaGrassa and because the forward was left completely unmarked just in front of goal. Orlando has had an ongoing problem with conceding late set piece goals and it bit them again in the home finale.
With the quick turnaround at the end, Orlando missed its opportunity to equal its most wins and most points in an MLS season and the Lions enter the postseason after one of the team’s worst letdowns since joining Major League Soccer.
“Obviously the game did not end the way we wanted,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “We have to sharpen things, especially in those key moments of concentration. And it has been something that we have been working on. We will keep doing it.”
Pareja shuffled his lineup a bit, starting Brian Rowe in goal behind a back line of Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Jordan Bender got his first MLS start in the midfield with Mauricio Pereyra suspended due to yellow card accumulation, alongside Junior Urso, Andres Perea, and Chris Mueller. Dike returned to the starting lineup to lead the attack, along with Nani.
The Lions started quickly, getting into the box just seconds after the whistle. Mueller tried to free himself for a shot inside the first minute and went down under contact but nothing was given. But moments later, the Lions created a turnover and scored in transition.
Mueller dribbled at Nashville’s back line before dishing off to Dike on his right. The big rookie set his feet and blasted a pinpoint accurate shot from the right side off the left post and in to make it 1-0 in the fourth minute with his eighth goal of the season.
Orlando City continued to try to pick through the stingy Nashville defense. Ruan cut inside in the ninth minute and tried to pick out a streaking Nani but his pass was just a bit off line and the defense sent it out for a corner. Three minutes later, Perea was set up in space at the top of the area but skied his shot well over the bar on a shot which he should have done better on.
Nashville forced a save in the 18th off a corner kick when the Lions cleared it to the top corner of the area and Dax McCarty fired right at Rowe. Orlando had set its defense deep to deal with Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney and left the top of the area unguarded. That came into play on the tying goal two minutes later.
The Lions cleared another set piece in the 20th minute but could only get the ball just outside the area, where Daniel Lovitz picked it up with time and space and sent a long-range effort into the corner of the net past Rowe to tie the match at 1-1.
The game got chippy shortly after that, with Nashville picking up two quick yellow cards in succession in the 28th and 29th minutes. Derrick Jones was booked after a foul on Junior Urso and then moments later, Anibal Godoy was booked for a hand across Nani’s face that left the Orlando captain with a bloodied lip.
The Lions nearly regained the lead in the 33rd minute when Bender crossed a ball in for Dike. The rookie headed it on goal and picked out a good spot but he couldn’t get much power on it and that gave Joe Willis just enough time to make a diving save.
McCarty was booked for holding up Mueller in the 37th minute and was extremely lucky not to pick up a second yellow card in the 40th on a rough challenge on Perea. The veteran player may have gotten the benefit of the doubt with referee David Gantar on the play, but Orlando’s players were incensed, particularly Robin Jansson, who ran about 30 yards to argue about it.
That was it for the first-half chances and the teams went to the break tied at 1-1. First half shots were level at 5-5 and shot on target were also the same (2-2). Nashville led in corners (2-1), while Orlando City held more possession (53.1%-46.9%) and was more accurate in passing (88%-86%).
Tesho Akindele subbed on at the half for Bender and the Lions immediately pressed for a go-ahead goal. Nani sent a nice cross in for Akindele in the 49th but the defense arrived just in time to nod it out of harm’s way. Mueller had a shot blocked at the top of the area a minute later and Nani fizzed a long-range effort over the bar in the 52nd.
Nashville tried to hit back just after that with a Derrick Jones drive that Rowe was able to fight off.
Orlando regained the lead in the 60th after Kyle Smith was fouled just outside the area. Nani lined up the free kick and sent a beauty over the wall and just inside the near post to make it 2-1. It was the captain’s sixth goal of the year.
Mueller nearly found an insurance goal in the 63rd with a shot from the top of the box that Willis got a hand on to push just wide of the post.
The ensuing corner kick pinged around the box and fell at Carlos’ feet. The defender was able to turn with a couple of quick touches and fired a shot wide with his left foot.
Both teams started to substitute over the next 15 minutes without many looks at goal on either end. Nashville couldn’t get on a free kick in the 73rd and Ruan sent a left-footed shot wide in the 76th minute. Ruan sent a floater headed inside the back post in the 81st but Willis got a hand to it.
Rowe made a save on a shot from the left in the 85th that looked to be headed inside the back post. Just after that, Orlando made a final sub, sending midfielder Joey DeZart on for Nani, rather than sending on an extra center back to play five at the back as we’ve seen in other matches this season.
The Nashville comeback started in the 88th out of seemingly nothing. Alex Muyl had the ball in the left corner with Ruan defending and sent an inch-perfect cross into the area that sailed just inches over Carlos, who had drifted too far away from Hany Mukhtar. The German easily nodded the cross into the back of the net to make it 2-2.
The Lions tried to pull that goal right back Ruan drew a foul just to the right of the box. Second-half sub Sebas Mendez played a short pass on the ground to Perea who fired a shot just over the crossbar in the 90th minute.
A few minutes later, LaGrassa left his feet after feeling light contact high from Smith and Gantar gave the foul. Mukhtar took the free kick and sent his cross into the box where Cádiz was unmarked. It appeared that Ruan and Smith were left on the back side to defend Muyl and Cádiz, with both Carlos and DeZart dealing with Dave Romney. Muyl appeared to wall off Ruan from getting to Cádiz, leaving him free in front of goal. Rowe got in position in time, but the header had too much power and got through him for the winning goal.
“It was just kind of two plays tonight that that decided that game,” Rowe said. “It’s just kind of fine tuning those little things.”
“There is much more we can do, for sure,” Pareja said about late lapses on set pieces. “It is our responsibility to prepare the boys and their responsibility obviously just to solve those problems, especially when teams are coming at the end with set plays, a corner, or something like that. For sure we will keep doing it. I think today it is even more painful because the game meant a lot.”
The Lions had no time to equalize because seconds later the game was over, as Gantar gave no extra time beyond the original four minutes of stoppage time originally given.
Orlando had more shot attempts (13-11), but Nashville got more on goal (6-4). The visitors won more corners (6-3), while the Lions held more possession (51.9%-48.1%) and the more accurate passing (84%-83%).
The Lions fell at home in their home finale for the second straight year. Orlando is 3-3-0 in home finales and just 1-5-0 in regular-season finales since joining MLS in 2015.
“It’s tough to swallow this game,” Rowe said. “It hurts but I think we need to reiterate that it doesn’t take away from what we’ve accomplished this year so far.”
“It was a game [that] brought moments where we were frustrated, especially the way it ended,” Pareja said. “But we can’t forget what the boys have done during this year. They qualified in the playoffs, they qualified in the best four in a tough conference, and they’ll be ready for playoffs.”
That’s it for the regular season, but unlike in years past, it won’t be the Lions’ last match of the year. The playoffs lie ahead. Orlando City will face New York City FC at home with the day and time to be announced.