Benji Michel scored a stunning goal-of-the-year candidate in the first half but another early goal conceded in the second half cost Orlando City two points in a 1-1 draw against Nashville SC at Nissan Stadium. The Lions (4-2-3, 15 points) had a two-game winning streak snapped by Nashville (2-4-2, 8 points) but are now unbeaten in three, finishing a two-game road swing with four out of six possible points.
“The first half was very good,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “The second half, when we started the first 10-15 minutes I think they were more aggressive. That was a mistake that kept us out of getting the three points but we’ll take it. This is a long journey, I’ve said many times, and the boys are proud and they will keep going and prepare for the next one.”
Pareja’s starting lineup surprisingly included several players who have played every match or nearly each one. Pedro Gallese took his usual spot in goal behind the usual center back pairing of Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos, with Ruan at right back and Kamal Miller stepping in for Joao Moutinho. Junior Urso joined Uri Rosell in central midfield, with an attacking midfield of Robinho, Mauricio Pereyra, and Michel. Daryl Dike started his fourth consecutive game — all in a 12-day stretch — up top. Tesho Akindele returned to the game day lineup on the bench, while Nani was left off the game day roster completely.
The first half hour was dominated by Orlando City in terms of possession but Nashville controlled the ball for most of the first half’s final 15 minutes. The Lions didn’t allow many good looks at goal and Carlos and Jansson did a good job of vacuuming up balls that were intended for striker Dominique Badji.
On the other end, the absence of Moutinho was noticeable as the bulk of the dangerous play came from Ruan and Michel on the right side. Robinho did what he could on the left but he didn’t have the fullback support on his side that Orlando City is used to. Still, the Lions looked like they were getting closer and closer to creating something and finally broke through in the 17th minute.
The play started with Ruan throwing it in from the right. Pereyra got a foot on the throw-in and popped it up over Dax McCarty, playing it forward. Michel muscled Anibal Godoy out of his way. He took possession, found himself in space, then unleashed a blast from long range that Joe Willis had no chance of stopping.
“I received the ball and I turned in the pocket,” Michel said of the buildup to his goal. “I tried to look for a pass but I saw no one so, might as well just shoot it and see what happens. Finally I was able to score my first goal this year, so you know that takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders.”
“Benji has energy, desire, commitment. Benji’s willing to learn a new position where he’s feeling more comfortable playing between the lines in tight spaces,” Pareja said.
Pereyra nearly sent Michel into the area in the 24th minute but his first touch was heavy and Nashville’s defense was able to clear. Urso then sent a great seeing-eye ball through for Ruan racing into the area but the Brazilian fullback couldn’t control the pass.
The hosts finally got some possession time late in the half but didn’t generate too much, sending in a few crosses and winning a couple of set pieces. Gallese stopped a Randall Leal’s shot in the 42nd minute and Carlos made a vital stop to deny a cross getting in a minute later, and the opening half faded to an end.
Nashville led in shots (4-2), with each team getting one on target. The Lions held 56% of the possession in the opening half and out-passed Nashville 88%-85%.
The hosts knotted the game at 1-1 just after the break. Miller strayed inside and then got beat for pace on a quick one-two, with Leal getting in behind the Canadian and beating Gallese from point-blank range.
“I think Nashville had a good energy in those first 10 minutes or so,” Pareja said.
“I think as a team we were caught off guard a little bit and they just took advantage,” Miller said. “I was there I felt like I could have done better to have my man on that one-two there. We’ll go back to training and look at the video and fix that next week.”
Nashville kept coming, earning a couple of quick corners and a free kick in succession and Pareja went to his bench for some fresh troops, bringing on Chris Mueller, Andres Perea, and Tesho Akindele. Although the subs helped to even out the possession a bit, it took a few minutes for them to settle in and Badji forced Gallese to make a save in the 57th minute.
Orlando started getting back on the ball and in the attacking third after that, winning a series of corners. But Nashville’s tall center backs cleaned up anything dangerous. The Lions nearly got a fortuitous bounce for all their hard work in the 65th minute, when McCarty blocked a cross, sending it toward goal. However, the ball hit off the outside of the post and skipped out for a corner.
Akindele got to a long ball over the top in the 70th and sent a back-heel to a wide open Michel but the second-year player had a moment of indecision instead of firing a shot and the Nashville defense closed him down and dispossessed him.
Second-half sub Kyle Smith got in down the left side in the 74th minute and fired a shot but it was right at Willis. The Lions continued to seem the more likely team to score as time wound down. A cross from Smith into the box in the 84th minute deflected and fell for Urso, who fired a shot at point-blank range but for the third time in two weeks, Willis robbed the Bear from in close.
That was the last good opportunity of the match and after three minutes of stoppage time, each team took home a point. The hosts led in shots (8-7) and shots on goal (4-3), but Orlando held more possession (58.4%) and passed better (90%-86%), winning more corners (10-5) as well.
“A point on the road is never easy and we got a point from it so you can’t complain,” Michel said. “We wanted three points but we were able to dig out one point.”
“We always talk about walking away from every game with a result, so we’re happy to get a result,” Miller said. “But overall, we feel like we had the better of the game and some points were probably left here. So, overall it’s mixed feelings after the game.”
Orlando City is right back in action Saturday night when the Lions host Atlanta United at 8 p.m. It will be Orlando’s fifth match in 15 days.