Orlando City lost a critical match in the MLS playoff race due to sloppy early play, falling 3-2 to the Columbus Crew at Lower.com Stadium. Lucas Zelarayan set up two goals and scored another to lead the hosts. Daryl Dike scored from the penalty spot and Robin Jansson scored a late cosmetic goal but it was a devastating result for the Lions.
The loss snapped a five-match unbeaten run overall and a five-game winning streak against Columbus, and dropped the Lions (12-9-11, 47 points) to just 1-4-1 on the road against the Crew (11-13-8, 41 points) in the all-time series. The loss, along with results elsewhere dropped Orlando City to fifth place in the Eastern Conference, just four points above the eighth-place New York Red Bulls. The Crew avoided being eliminated for the moment, but sit in 10th, three points behind D.C. United in that final playoff spot.
“I think it’s a painful result for sure,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “After those two goals that we conceded the energy got lower. Columbus started getting more enthusiasim for the game. Half of the first half we did not react well.”
Pareja went with Pedro Gallese in net behind a back line of Kyle Smith, Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Andres Perea slotted into central midfield with Sebas Mendez as Junior Urso got a little rest. Mauricio Pereyra and Chris Mueller facilitated the attack to Nani and Dike.
The Lions were sloppy in the early going, giving the ball away cheaply in the attack and making too many mistakes in their own end, which led to both of the Crew’s first-half goals. Both of the first-half strikes by Columbus were preventable.
The first preventable goal came on the recycle of a corner kick. Zelarayan’s cross fell at Smith’s feet but he kicked it right back to the Crew’s best passer. Zelarayan sent a second cross into the area and found Berry who nodded home to make it 1-0 in the 20th minute.
The Lions generated a chance to tie things up in the 26th minute when Mueller was fouled by Pedro Santos. Pereyra’s service was perfect for Carlos but Mueller tried to get onto it and headed wide with Carlos in better position.
Four minutes later, the Crew doubled their lead on another preventable play. Ruan seemed to have a good view of the field and space to head the ball up the field and out of danger but he instead nodded behind for a corner. Zelarayan’s cross was a difficult one to the back post and Gallese couldn’t reach it. Ruan was trying to mark Derrick Etienne on the back post but was far too casual with it and allowed an easy tap-in in the 31st minute.
Etienne nearly had a second in the 38th minute, flicking on a pass from Steven Moreira. The ball skipped across the face of goal just outside the line and missed at the back post.
Jansson then made a terrific play in front to deny a cross from getting to Berry for another easy goal in the 44th minute.
The halftime stats were pretty even. Each team held 50% of the possession and each attempted four shots. Columbus, however, got two of their four on target (both goals), while the Lions didn’t hit the target. Orlando was surprisingly (to the naked eye) the more accurate passing team (85%-81.4%), while the Crew won more corners (4-2).
But where Orlando struggled was in the middle of the pitch. Pereyra sent a number of passes into too tight of a window, turning it over. Orlando struggled to get Nani involved and Darlington Nagbe and Marlon Hairston dominated the middle of the field.
Pareja made two changes at the break, sending on Tesho Akindele and Benji Michel for Nani and Mendez.
The Lions got exactly what they needed early in the second half. A shot by Michel looked to deflect out for a corner on first glance, but the attempt hit the outstretched arm of Jonathan Mensah. After going to the monitor, referee Joseph Dickerson awarded a penalty and it was clear-cut on the replay. Dike stepped to the spot and saw his shot saved by Eloy Room but Dickerson again went to the monitor and determined that the Crew keeper clearly came off his line early. Dike retook the spot kick, used the same approach, and blasted it past Room to make it 2-1 in the 52nd minute.
Dike improved to three-for-three from the spot this season and scored his eighth goal of the year. He matched his rookie season goal total in one fewer appearance and two fewer starts.
Rather than ride the momentum of getting back in the game, Orlando got sloppy again. A misplaced pass from Jansson started a counter that ended in Ruan conceding a dangerous free kick but Zelarayan hit the wall with his shot. Moments later, Perea tried to pass into traffic and ignited another Crew transition opportunity. This time Smith committed a foul just outside the box and was booked for it. Zelarayan went for goal again and Gallese made a save.
But Zelarayan got his goal moments later. Perea left Zelarayan to track Moreira on the wing with the ball and the right back sent it back to his Designated Player midfielder. Perea was caught in no man’s land, having to cover two attackers, with Michel too far up the field to help and Pereyra too far away toward the inside. No one closed Zelarayan down as a result and he did what Designated Players do, taking his time to tee it up and scoring a golazo from distance to restore the two-goal advantage.
“I thought we conceded too much space for a player with that quality,” Pareja said. “We know he has that range of shooting. He’s always just waiting to have that possibility because he’s effective in that position.”
“I think, I don’t know maybe five minutes after we scored the PK, we kind of started to slow down and that’s when they scored their (third) goal, which was kind of obviously not good for us,” Akindele said. “So I think that little five-minute dip in our energy was was kind of the killer tonight.”
The Lions could have pulled that goal right back. A ball into the box bounced up for Mueller to head toward the target but the Orlando winger couldn’t have hit his shot any straighter at the goalkeeper than he did, letting Room off the hook from point-blank range.
Orlando didn’t learn from Zelarayan’s goal because the Lions left him alone at the top of the box again in the 65th minute, but the DP couldn’t make good contact with the cross to direct his shot on goal.
As the game wound down, Orlando didn’t get many chances to climb back into it. They didn’t do much with a couple of corner kicks and Perea fired over the bar from long range in transition when he perhaps could have set up one of his forwards who were running forward with him for a better opportunity in the 78th minute.
Dickerson awarded nine minutes of stoppage time due to the lengthy reviews on the penalty and an injury to Marlon Hairston in the second half. Orlando finally pulled back to within striking distance in the 92nd minute when Akindele got the ball on the left and sent in a perfect back-post cross to a streaking Jansson, who slotted it just inside the left post to make it 3-2.
“It’s funny, because the play started with Robin winning the ball in our half,” said Akindele, who picked up his career-high sixth assist on the play. “When I cut in Robin was there and I just tried to put the ball in a dangerous area.”
But an equalizer never came. The Lions struggled to keep possession and to work the ball into dangerous areas when they did get a hold of it.
Orlando had more possession (51.7%-48.3%), more shots (12-10), and a higher passing accuracy (82.3%-81.3%), while the hosts got more shots on target (5-3) and won more corners (5-4).
The loss doesn’t eliminate Orlando’s chances of hosting a playoff match but with a tough opponent coming to Exploria Stadium Sunday and a difficult trip to Canada to face Montreal on Decision Day, the Lions seem to be more in survival mode than playing for positioning.
“Not qualifying for playoffs would be a huge failure for our team,” Akindele said. “And we know that and honestly for us, qualifying for playoffs is just step one. So, we expect that we’re going to qualify for playoffs. I think we have the quality in our team. We have a good home game coming up. And we still have two games left in the season. So I think that we’re still in good position, and we expect that we’ll qualify.”
“We have to refocus again with the proximity of these games,” Pareja said. “There’s not too much time to feel sorry for ourselves. We have to just move on and try to focus on Nashville.”
The Lions return home for their home finale of the 2021 MLS regular season when they host Nashville SC on Sunday at 4 p.m.