Orlando City’s 2021 season is over.
The Lions scored first, but fell victim to a fluky goal and the Nashville SC counter attack in a 3-1 loss at Nissan Stadium. The game was closer than the final score would indicate, but the fourth meeting of the year between the two sides — the third in Nashville — went to the hosts. Daryl Dike put the Lions ahead early but Hany Mukhtar scored twice and Jhonder Cadiz got an insurance goal deep in stoppage time.
The team to score first has still never won in the series and a solid second season under Oscar Pareja — despite a plethora of injuries, suspensions, and international call-ups — came to a close after the franchise’s first ever road playoff contest.
“Those counters affected us today and that was a difference maker in the game,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “I think the effort from the players and the desire and the willingness to be as we’re always asking them, it was there on the field. So there’s nothing to regret, and it’s painful but the boys left it on the field and there’s nothing we can complain about.”
Despite David Loera being the only player on the injury report, Pareja still didn’t have his first-choice starting XI in the lineup. Joao Moutinho did not dress and Nani started on the bench. Pareja had Pedro Gallese in goal behind a back line of Emmanuel Mas, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Sebas Mendez and Junior Urso slotted into central midfield, with Mauricio Pereyra and Chris Mueller facilitating the attack to Benji Michel and Daryl Dike up top.
Orlando City started strong and looked to be growing into the game first. A good bit of buildup nearly resulted in a chance for Mueller in the 10th minute. The Lions worked the ball into the area but the final ball from Dike was too far out in front. But Orlando got the opener four minutes later.
Michel won a corner kick for Orlando and the Lions made the set piece pay off. Pereyra sent in a great cross and Dike peeled away from the defense and placed his header toward the far post and in for the first goal in the 14th minute. It was Dike’s first playoff goal.
Nashville tried to get back into it using the dark arts. CJ Sapong took a dive and Ismail Elfath rewarded it by giving the hosts a free kick in a dangerous area. Mukhtar’s free kick hit the wall and came back to him. He tried to pick out Walker Zimmerman with a recycled ball but Jansson cleared it away.
Unfortunately, Nashville tied the match in the 21st minute. Urso was unaware of Anibal Godoy’s quick close-down and gave away the ball in the middle of the field. Godoy poked it off of Urso to Mukhtar who dribbled toward Orlando’s area and tried a long-distance shot. Carlos was unlucky in trying to block it because instead of Gallese having a good chance to make a save, the ball deflected up and over the goalkeeper and in to make it 1-1.
“They bet for counters and they they don’t want to be the team to dictate the tempo,” Pareja said. “They wait and that’s what they do, and they did it well.”
Randall Leal tried to put Nashville on top three minutes later from Gallese’s left as the defense failed to close him down, but he fired a laser shot right at El Pulpo and the goalkeeper gave no rebound.
Godoy thought he’d scored in the 41st minute off a rebound of a Mukhtar shot that Gallese saved but couldn’t control, but the midfielder was offside on the play and the game remained tied.
That was all the scoring in a bit of a sloppy first half that saw both teams slipping on the football field of Nissan Stadium. Michel had one moment of slippage in his own end that nearly gifted Nashville a scoring chance but Carlos headed a cross intended for Sapong out of harm’s way. Aside from the footing, Orlando had some heavy touches but overall played a solid first half on the road.
Nashville led in most of the statistical categories at the break, holding more possession (55.8%-44.2%), firing more shots (5-1), notching more shots on target (3-1), and passing slightly more accurately (82.4%-82.3%). Orlando City won more corner kicks (2-0).
The first chance of the second half fell to Sapong in the 47th minute as he attempted a header from near the top of the area but didn’t get anything on it and Gallese wasn’t troubled.
Orlando grew into the second half but then got too timid when approaching dangerous areas. Dike laid off a pass for Michel in the 48th minute but the winger opted to take a touch rather than fire first time and the touch was heavy. He tried to drag it back around a defender but ended up losing it and wasting the opportunity.
“In that moment we didn’t have the confidence to do it or we were not sharp enough,” Pareja said of those chances. “And there’s many things that you can say but this is a group has been competing for two years and they have done the job many, many times and unfortunately today we (came up) short.”
A minute later, Pereyra sent a seeing-eye ball that would have sent Mueller in but Daniel Lovitz did well to make a sliding challenge to knock the pass away at the last second.
Michel was again hesitant in the area in the 57th minute, missing a chance to get a shot on target but he did win a corner. The ensuing set piece was knocked to the top of the area to Mendez who fired a shot that was heading on target but it was blocked out for another corner. Mendez again got a chance on the following corner after an initial clearance by Joe Willis, but he sent a rocket just wide to the right.
In the 60th minute, Pereyra led a counter into the top of the box and laid a pass off for Ruan on the right. Urso was trailing the play and didn’t see Ruan. The midfielder made a sliding effort to get a shot on goal but instead took out his right back, wasting another opportunity.
As Pareja was preparing to bring Nani on as a sub, disaster struck. A blocked shot at the top of the Nashville area turned into a Nashville counter and Mukhtar ended up on the right side 1-v-1 with Mas. The Nashville Designated Player cut in from the right toward the middle and Mas couldn’t keep up. Mendez, sitting on a yellow card, was too passive in closing down. Meanwhile, Sapong made a diagonal run that caused confusion between the two center backs and that gave Mukhtar room to shoot. He beat Gallese to make it 2-1 in the 74th minute.
Although the circumstances had changed, Nani’s introduction seemed to have the desired effect. Pareja said after the match that Nani had been having some recent difficulties but was fine to play and they decided to bring him off the bench to have him at his best. Unfortunately, the timing of the second Mukhtar goal meant Pareja was sending him on with the Lions chasing the game rather than level.
Just after he came on, Urso came free in the middle and fired a long-range shot but he hit it right at Willis in the 76th minute. Moments later, Nani cut in left to right at the corner of the area and smashed a rocket toward goal that Zimmerman blocked with his midsection.
The captain then won a corner in the 80th but Orlando could do nothing with it. In the 86th, Nani sent a free kick into the area that deflected to substitute Tesho Akindele. Lovitz closed him down and he tried to pull his shot around the defender but ended up sending it wide.
Moments later, Orlando should have had a set piece in the middle just outside the area. Dike made a good turn and got beyond his defender. He still had to deal with Zimmerman but before he could do that he was knocked down from behind. Elfath swallowed his whistle and Nashville cleared the danger.
The last chance at an equalizer came on a cross from late sub Silvester van der Water. Akindele got his head on it but couldn’t make enough contact to direct it inside the far post.
Cadiz put the game away in the 94th minute after outmuscling Carlos and slotting home.
Both teams finished the game with just nine shots but Nashville got more on target (6-2). Orlando City ended up with more possession (54.3%-45.7%), won more corners (5-0), and passed more accurately for the game (81.3%-79.1%).
“If you ask me for one difference between the teams I think it’s just that they scored the second goal when maybe they didn’t deserve it, because they didn’t (generate much attack) in the second half,” Pereyra said. “But that’s soccer, and that’s what we need to accept and we need to say congratulations to Nashville.”
The home team has won in every MLS playoff game so far this postseason, and that has to rub the Lions the wrong way after a terrible refereeing decision the last time these teams played ended up dropping Orlando from what would have been a home game to having to travel to Nashville.
The Lions will next play a competitive match in late February when they host CF Montreal in the 2022 season opener. Nashville will go to Philadelphia for a conference semifinal match on Sunday.