Nani came up big, notching a brace and getting a secondary assist on Benji Michel’s late insurance goal, leading Orlando City to a 3-1 win over Minnesota United at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. With the victory, the Lions will face Portland next Tuesday in the MLS is Back final.
It was Orlando’s first win over Minnesota and first win against the Lions’ original coach, Adrian Heath. It was also the Loons’ first loss of 2020. Quietly, Orlando has lost only one match this season (2-1-2, 8 points in league play, 4-0-2 in MLS is Back). The Loons are 3-0-2, 11 points in the regular season and finish this tournament with a 2-1-3 record.
“We’re very happy to be in the final,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “It’s been a great tournament and a great opportunity for our players to represent the franchise and the club and I think they have done a great job. And very well deserved to be in the final — and tonight against a very good team.”
Pareja went with the same lineup, meaning Pedro Gallese defended the sticks behind a back line of Joao Moutinho, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Uri Rosell and Sebas Mendez patrolled the central midfield behind Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, and Chris Mueller, with Tesho Akindele up top.
The match was delayed an hour and 11 minutes due to lightning in the area but Orlando finally did kick off. Once that happened, the Lions opened the game a bit flat, conceding two early corners and having very little of the ball in the opening 10 minutes. Ruan did get forward in the seventh minute, but rather than cross it in, he fired toward goal and Miller parried it away.
Gallese then parried a wayward Chase Gasper cross from long distance over the bar in the 12th minute. The Lions came into the game little by little and Akindele should have opened the scoring in the 15th minute. Ruan got down the right side again and picked out Tesho but the Canadian couldn’t hold off Jose Aja and ended up bundling the ball over the bar from in close.
Nani sent a free kick right at goalkeeper Tyler Miller in the 21st minute and it was the only one of the captain’s three first-half shots that didn’t find the back of the net. Two minutes later he brought down a long ball with a perfect first touch and laid off for Mueller, who fired a left-footed effort well wide of goal. Then Pereyra should have had Akindele in alone in the 26th minute but Tesho couldn’t find the handle on the pass from the Uruguayan.
Minnesota nearly got in behind in the 29th minute when Gasper sent a long diagonal ball from left to right and Luis Amarilla nearly got on the end of it after sneaking in between Moutinho and Jansson.
In the 35th minute Pereyra again found Akindele, who put the ball in the net but the flag was up. The Canadian started his run a little early as a result of Pereyra’s first touch being a little off and needing an extra step to track down the ball. The Lions were getting close but having no final product, as had been the case throughout the tournament. That lasted only one more minute.
Jansson sent a fantastic long ball from the back to Nani on the left. The captain brought the ball down perfectly once again and fought through contact from Hassani Dotson and poked the ball past Miller to make it 1-0 in the 36th minute.
Orlando kept coming. Ruan got down the right on a promising counter in the 41st minute with options all over the place, but the right back’s cross was poor and got deflected to Miller. But Nani doubled the lead a minute later anyway.
The captain received the ball from Mendez on the left side. Given too much room to operate, he took a step to his right and curled a banger into the far corner to make it 2-0 as the 42nd minute was ticking off.
“It’s great, you know, to have players who take that responsibility and put that weight on their shoulders, and appear in the games that mean the most to us,” Pareja said of Nani.
The Lions fended off two late Minnesota corner kick opportunities in first-half stoppage time, before the whistle brought an end to the opening period. Orlando City led in shots (5-4), shots on goal (3-0), possession (54.5%) and passing accuracy (84%-80%) but it was Nani’s quality that separated the sides at the break.
The Loons pushed the tempo in the second half and Orlando City seemed content to absorb pressure and be deliberate whenever the Lions had possession. That meant most of the second half was played in Orlando City’s half of the field, particularly after Heath brought on substitutes Kevin Molino, Mason Toye, and Raheem Edwards.
Minnesota spent seemingly the entire final 45 minutes (plus six minutes of stoppage time) either taking corners, free kicks or throw-ins. Jan Gregus fizzed a free kick opportunity wide of goal in the 62nd minute as the Loons kept the pressure on. Molino drew a series of free kicks after that and all three looked like they should have been fouls on him, particularly throwing out his arm and catching Mendez in the face in the 68th minute.
Ruan should have put the game away in the 71st minute. He got in down the right and was all alone for a free header on a cross from the left but he missed the net somehow.
Gallese made a good save to deny Edwards in the 75th on another free kick won by Molino, who pulled Urso back to get around him and then when the Bear got a toe on the ball, Molino appeared to trip over it but Drew Fischer gave the Loons the set piece.
Michael Boxhall headed just over Gallese’s bar in the 77th on a set piece that was given when Moutinho was undercut while jumping but again the whistle went against Orlando. Urso was fouled again in the 80th and lost the ball, but there was no call and Molino’s shot was caught by Gallese.
Molino finally hurt the Lions in the 83rd minute, with a superb through ball that found Toye, who shot right away. Gallese got a touch to it but couldn’t keep it out and Minnesota pulled within 2-1 with plenty of time remaining. Toye might have been offside by a shoulder but video review judged the goal to be a fair one.
The Loons could have tied it in the 94th minute. Toye was all alone in front as a cross sailed in from his right but he couldn’t make good contact on it and the chance went wanting. Orlando then put the match away.
Urso got the ball near midfield from Nani and sent Michel in behind all of the Loons except Miller. Michel coolly rounded the keeper and slotted home the insurance goal in the 96th minute.
“I just knew it was a good chance for us to counter,” Michel said. “So you know I just gave all my energy — I came off the bench so I expect myself to give a spark to the team and I just knew that there was a chance for me to score. Urso played me the ball one-v-one then I was through and I was able to beat the keeper and put the ball back in the back of the net.”
The whistle blew just after the restart and Orlando had its first win over its original coach, first win over the Loons, and first trip to a final in the MLS era.
Minnesota came back to dominate the stat sheet, finishing with a 17-7 advantage in shots, although Orlando held a 4-3 edge in shots on target. Possession ended up at just about 50/50, and the Lions held onto their 84%-80% edge in passing accuracy. Minnesota managed 13 corners to just three for the Lions.
“It was very satisfying for us because you know we worked the whole week just, just like working as a team, making sure like all the pieces are put together,” Michel said. “But, you know the guys worked tremendously hard and for us to be able to get the win was very, very good for us.”
“It was really hard to get at Minnesota,” Pareja said. “They came sharp and we adjusted well. And the best part was that we respected the way we play and we respected our ways, our forms, and we ended up getting that result under our concepts and principles and that’s why they made us even more proud.”