There’s nothing that can be said about the inexplicable ending to Orlando City’s 1-1 home draw against Nashville SC on Sunday afternoon that hasn’t already been said. A game that appeared to be won, and only seemed more and more certain with every look at the replay, was stolen away from the Lions, putting a 2021 postseason berth into far more peril than it should be with one match remaining. Rather than jockeying for position with this Sunday’s game at Montreal, the Lions will now be forced to fight for their playoff lives.
Daryl Dike opened the scoring on a great team goal that included decisive passes from Nani and Chris Mueller in the first half. Junior Urso also hit the post or the lead could have been 2-0 at the break. That single goal wasn’t enough as a counter attack ended in a Hany Mukhtar equalizer in the second half.
Orlando stayed the course, needing a win to clinch a playoff spot, and looked for ways to break down a Nashville team that — as usual — made no effort to do anything but stay organized, waiting for the Lions to get frustrated or stretched and allow an opening for a counter or a chance to score on a set piece by setting pick after pick for Walker Zimmerman. Opportunities came but the Lions struggled to get their shots just right, with Nani hitting one just wide and Mauricio Pereyra lashing a shot right at goalkeeper Joe Willis.
Then game the final chance. Alexandre Pato drew a foul in a good spot and stepped up to take the set piece himself. In what should have been a storybook finish, Pato delivered a nearly perfect free kick that missed going in by inches, striking the underside of the crossbar and bouncing off of Willis’ back. The ball again came just inches from going in when it hit the inside of the right post and bounced across the front of goal. Dike swooped in to finish it, only to be interfered with from Nashville’s Alistair Johnston, who was running in from his left and slightly behind him. Johnston could do nothing but throw his foot into the path of Dike — who was already well into his final swing at the ball — at the last second and pray.
Referee Allen Chapman answered his prayer. After Johnston initiated contact with Dike by sticking a foot in from behind, with no real effort to play the ball, the two players sprawled into the goal while Andres Perea poked the ball into the net for the apparent winner. Chapman went to the monitor while most people in the stadium were either still euphorically celebrating or wondering how much more stoppage time the Lions would need to see out, having already watched the announced four minutes of injury time elapse.
But Chapman came back from his brief stint at the monitor and waved the goal away, shocking the 15,959 in attendance and, based on social media, just about everyone around the league who witnessed the events that transpired in the 94th minute. The game ended officially in a draw.
Despite the result and the frustrating and unsatisfactory explanation for it, Sunday was a beautiful day at Exploria Stadium and the Lions played well overall against one of the league’s best teams. They stayed patient, refused to get stretched or take chances pushing additional players into the attack, and did just enough to win the match before Chapman perpetrated his Halloween Heist at the end.
We hope you enjoy these images from Orlando City’s regular-season home finale. It was a good day to be at the stadium and perhaps the Lion faithful’s last opportunity to see some of these players — Mueller, for example — in their team’s colors at Exploria Stadium.
Images: Dan MacDonald
Words: Michael Citro