It looked like the Lions had won it. Andres Perea’s put-back of an Alexandre Pato free kick that hit the crossbar and goalkeeper Joe Willis deep in stoppage time appeared to punch Orlando City’s ticket into the postseason. But referee Allen Chapman went to the monitor and waved off a goal for what he deemed a clear and obvious foul on Daryl Dike, allowing Nashville SC (12-4-17, 53 points) to escape with a 1-1 draw against Orlando (12-9-12, 48 points) as the teams tied for the third time in as many meetings in 2021.
The Lions crept closer to clinching but that disallowed goal could be a killer after Daryl Dike had provided an early lead, only to see Hany Mukhtar equalize in the second half at Exploria Stadium in Orlando’s home regular-season finale.
“It’s a very sad day for the league, a league that has been growing immensely,” an obviously upset Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “There are no explanations on the play that was so evident and destroyed the joy of our people — the people that believe in this project. It’s a very sad day. Allow me not to say more. It is incredible what happened tonight.”
Pareja had nearly a first-choice starting XI for this one, with only left back Joao Moutinho missing of the expected starting lineup. Pedro Gallese slotted in behind a back line of Emmanuel Mas, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Sebas Mendez and Junior Urso took their place in central midfield, behind attackers Nani, Mauricio Pereyra, and Chris Mueller and striker Dike.
Orlando came out and played a patient opening half, building slowly and methodically when in possession, looking for a way through the organized Nashville defense. The chances were few but the Lions managed to create some. Nani put a good cross into the area to Pereyra in the eighth minute but the Uruguayan opted to flick on for Dike rather than go for goal and the connection didn’t quite come off.
Nashville got a series of corner kicks and came close to cashing in on one when Walker Zimmerman got a good pick and came free, but his header was saved by Gallese in the 10th minute.
Orlando earned a set piece in the 13th minute when Dike was fouled by Jack Maher near the corner. Nani found Pereyra at the top of the area but the midfielder didn’t make good contact on his one-time shot attempt and popped it up over the bar.
The Lions found an opener in the 18th minute on a sustained spell of possession that began with Pereyra winning the ball back in the corner after a set piece. Orlando worked the ball around the top of the area left to right and Nani found Mueller breaking toward the end line. Mueller cut a cross back through the area and Dike redirected it in for his ninth goal of the year.
Nashville started pressing higher after the Orlando goal and the Lions did well to stay patient and composed as the visitors tried to work the ball into a good shooting position. There were a few nervy moments but Nashville couldn’t create a clear-cut opportunity.
Orlando nearly doubled the lead in the 34th minute. Ruan tried to cut a pass back for a teammate but it went off Sapong and deflected out for a corner. The ensuing cross was headed back into the mix at the top of the box by Carlos and fell for Urso, who had his back to goal. Urso sent a spinning half-bike kick attempt toward goal but it hit the post and stayed out. Mas was called for a foul trying to get to the rebound ahead of a defender.
That was it for the good chances in the opening half. Nashville attempted more shots (7-5) and got more on target (4-1) but asided from Zimmerman’s there wasn’t much danger. The Lions held more possession (58.8%-41.2%), and passed more accurately (88.2%-84.4%), while Nashville won more corners (4-1).
Early in the second half, Mukhtar went down after a Carlos clearance looking to get a penalty call. Chapman wasn’t interested and he never looked at the monitor although the VAR certainly looked at the replay and determined there was no penalty. Mukhtar laid on the field for a good while and yet never got a visit from the trainers.
A few minutes later he got his “revenge” for the perceived slight, scoring his 15th goal of the season in the 53rd minute to tie the game. The goal came in transition after Nani tried to flick a pass through to send Dike in behind but didn’t get the touch quite right. Mukhtar milked the moment by preening in front of The Wall on the north end of the stadium.
Two minutes later, it was Orlando’s turn to shout for a penalty. Urso played a ball in behind the defense and would have been through on goal if not for being obstructed by the defense. Chapman immediately waved Urso to get up.
Nashville got a dangerous scoring opportunity in the 58th minute after Alex Muyl clipped Mueller from behind and Chapman not only didn’t make a call but he mimed that Mueller dove. Mueller may have tried to make sure the foul was seen, but replay showed there was clear contact between Muyl’s boot and Mueller’s ankle. Nashville ended up firing a shot on target that Gallese saved. Three minutes later, Eric Miller was able to sneak down the left channel and beat Ruan to a through ball firing a shot at Gallese.
In the 69th minute, it was Nani getting spun around by a defender in the attacking third and again there was no call. Nashville countered and Randall Leal fired wide of the goal on the other end.
Orlando continued to attack. Mas got free on the left but had his shot blocked in the 71st minute and the rebound fell to Mueller, who fired just off target. Two minutes later, Mueller got free at the top of the area but got under his shot and was visibly upset when it sailed over the net. It was Mueller’s last involvement of the game as he was subbed off for Benji Michel. It will be his last moment on the Exploria Stadium pitch unless the Lions somehow get a home playoff match. That’ll be more difficult after Chapman’s final decision in the match.
Pereyra got a good look at the top of the box in the 75th minute but fired a blast straight at Willis. Moments later, Nani drew a foul about 40 yards out from goal but Pereyra’s service was just slightly over everyone. The Lions then forced a turnover on the ensuing goal kick but Urso fired high in the 77th minute.
Nani went for glory from outside the area in the 85th minute and his blast didn’t miss the top right corner by much.
The only talking point that truly matters came in stoppage time. Pato drew a free kick about 25 yards straight out from goal and stepped up to take it himself. He smashed a laser shot that caught the bottom of the crossbar and hit Willis, then bounced off the right post and crawled tantalizingly out in front of the goal. Dike tried to get to the ball first. Alistair Johnston came in from behind and there was contact, with both players ending up in the net. Perea was first to get to the loose ball, scoring the apparent winner.
Exploria Stadium erupted and the Lions were still celebrating when Chapman went to the monitor to look at the play. After a short review, he signaled that there was no goal following replay.
“Orlando player Daryl Dike kicked Nashville player Alistair Johnston’s leg as Johnston was attempting to clear the ball. It was determined to be a foul prior to the goal being scored,” the referee responded to a pool reporter’s question after the match. “In the opinion of the match officials, Daryl Dike prevented Johnston from clearing the ball.”
While the replay shows some contact, it’s questionable at best whether Johnston could clear the ball or if he might even have knocked it into inside netting and there was certainly no intent to do anything but score by Dike. It appears to this writer that Johnston stuck his leg in front of Dike’s as if to prevent the forward from getting to it, rather than trying to make a play to clear it. Either way, it’s a stretch to call this a clear and obvious error.
“There is not any explanation that gets even close to (us) accepting that decision,” Pareja said. “That’s not going to be a resource for us, trying to make the players understand that it was a foul. We can’t get there. There’s no way to do it. I already saw 30 times the clip.”
Both teams ended up with 14 shots, with Nashville getting more on target (7-2). Orlando held more possession (54.9%-45.1%) and passed more accurately (87.7%-84.8%), while the visitors got more corners (7-2).
Orlando will need to regroup after a draw that should have been a win.
“Today was really hard for us because we we did our best on the field and we’re a little bit frustrated to not get three points,” Urso said. “We played well I think but we have to look forward because we need one more point to be in the playoffs.”
“Just put it behind us. It will take obviously certain time. I hope the boys can just shake it off and then refocus on what is coming because that’s our responsibility. I can tell you how disappointed they are with what just happened, and just let them absorb it first, and tomorrow will be another day. This is a beautiful sport and we have to move on and just try to make things happen in Montreal.”
The Lions will close out the regular season one week from today, heading north of the border to take on CF Montreal on Decision Day.