Orlando City didn’t want to wait around for other results. The Lions got second-half goals from Sebas Mendez and Daryl Dike to win 2-0 at Stade Saputo in Montreal and punch their ticket to the MLS playoffs. It was a nervy game but Orlando (13-9-12, 51 points) finished with a club record in points and wins and showed fortitude to beat a desperate CF Montreal (12-12-10, 46 points) in its own building after the disappointment a week ago in stoppage time.
Mendez’s goal was his first as a Lion and Dike finished the season with 10 by scoring the insurance tally late. Orlando finished in sixth place in the Eastern Conference after the Decision Day results were in, and although it looked for a while like a win might bring a home playoff match to Orlando, other results changed and the Lions will visit Nashville in the first round of the postseason.
“Once again, a very difficult match with urgencies today. There was no tomorrow,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “It must be done today, here in Montreal. After what happened against Nashville at home, it was very difficult to absorb, but the players showed a lot of character. I liked our game. I thought we were very smart today. We tried to neutralize them and just take our special moments to find the game. So we are very pleased, very happy for for the club, and we will get ready for Nashville.”
Pareja turned in his 34th team sheet of the season without his first-choice starting XI. Pedro Gallese took his spot in goal behind a back line of Emmanuel Mas, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Mendez and Junior Urso roamed central midfield with an attacking midfield line of Benji Michel, Mauricio Pereyra, and Silvester van der Water, with Dike up top. Nani was on the bench and Uri Rosell returned to the game day roster but notably missing were Joao Moutinho, who had been upgraded to questionable this week, and Chris Mueller.
The first half had an obvious playoff feel with both teams playing hard and looking for an advantage. The hosts pressed high and made life difficult for Orlando to play out of the back, which was an interesting tactic given that Montreal played on Wednesday. While the press didn’t create many turnovers, it did prevent Orlando from finding space between the Montreal lines.
Orlando had the first good flurry of opportunities. Michel cut onto his right foot and fired over the bar in the 10th minute and a minute later Samuel Piette upended Dike just outside the area, conceding a dangerous free kick. Pereyra got his shot up over the wall and it was on target but it was saved by a diving Sebastian Breza as the ball was too close to the center of goal.
On the ensuing corner kick, a good delivery from van der Water found Dike but his flicked header skipped wide of the far post.
After that flurry, the hosts got on the front foot for a few minutes and should have scored in the 16th minute. A ball across the front of goal by Zachary Brault-Guillard just needed a tap-in but Sunusi Ibrahim’s touch took the ball across the front of the goal line and Gallese scooped it up.
Five minutes later, Mas tried to cut in front of an attacking player but missed the ball. Torres was in alone but Gallese came off his line, made himself big, and produced a vital save to keep it scoreless.
“They came out with a lot of pressure today, and especially in the first half created some chances,” Jansson said. “And we had our big guy back there, Pedro, saving us sometimes today and he’s just fantastic.”
In the 23rd minute, Carlos sent a diving header wide of the left post on a set piece, although it appeared that Breza had the play covered.
Orlando’s best chance came in the 37th minute. Urso was fouled about 30 yards out and Pereyra tapped the ball to Jansson. The Beefy Swede smashed a left-footed shot toward goal but it crashed off the right post and went out of play as the Lions came within inches of opening the scoring. It was Orlando’s third time hitting the woodwork in a game and a half.
Two minutes later, Montreal appeared to score the opener but Ibrahim was well offside before firing home.
Rudy Camacho blocked another long-range effort from Jansson in the 41st minute and the ensuing corner kick cross skipped through the 6-yard box but no Lions were lurking to knock it in. That was the last good chance of the half and the teams went to the locker room without a goal on the board.
Orlando had more first-half shots (7-6), but Montreal got more on target (2-1). The Lions held more possession (51.7%-48.3%), while the hosts earned more corners (4-2) and passed more accurately (84.9%-80.9%).
Pareja inserted Andres Perea into the match at halftime to help solidify the midfield, withdrawing van der Water. Meanwhile, Montreal brought on the dangerous Romell Quioto for Ibrahim.
Quioto’s presence made an instant difference in Montreal’s attack. Djordje Mihailovic fired a shot just four minutes after the restart that Jansson blocked. It fell to Quioto but he was in an offside position. Montreal continued to have success getting the ball to the dangerous Mihailovic, who always seemed just inches from picking out a teammate for a clear-cut chance.
But instead, it was Orlando that struck first.
A long throw-in by Mas was only partially cleared by the defense and it fell for Mendez outside the area on the left. The Ecuadorian took it on the bounce and placed a perfect shot just inside the far post to open his Orlando City account and put the Lions ahead in the 55th minute with a sensational goal.
“The goal is a great personal goal for me, and it was an important goal to help send us through to the playoffs, which is an objective that we’ve been working towards all year,” Mendez said through a club interpreter. “So, it was obviously a happy moment for me, but now we’ve got to turn our attention to start working towards a bigger goal and a bigger objective, which is to win our next playoff game.”
“That’s, amazing. What a hit from Sebas,” Jansson said. “I didn’t expect that when he hit the ball, but I’m so happy for him.”
It’s often said that a team is vulnerable right after scoring and that nearly proved the case for the Lions. Just four minutes after Mendez broke the deadlock, Quioto thought he had Montreal level. He headed home a good ball into the area but the flag came up immediately. The video assistant referee ruled that there was no error on the play. The play was certainly close, with Jansson possibly keeping Quioto on, but the TV camera angle on the broadcast wasn’t in a good spot to get a proper look at it. This is the angle we had and it’s not a straight down the line shot.
Broadcaster Evan Weston reported that VAR confirmed the call, which is quite different than just letting it stand due to it being inconclusive, but whatever angle showed it conclusively wasn’t on the broadcast.
The stadium showed the replay on the scoreboard and Montreal players started confronting referee Armando Villarreal. Montreal coach Wilfried Nancy was booked for his outburst on the bench. Eventually, order was restored and the teams played on.
Mihailovic again got into a dangerous position in the 64th minute but before he could shoot, Urso stopped him with a professional foul and received a booking. Mihailovic went for goal on the ensuing free kick but hit it well over the goal.
As the game entered its later stages, the Lions continued to sell out defensively, playing with urgency in their own end. Dike and Ruan earned free kicks with their hustle to shut down Montreal attacks. The hosts were able to win corners but Orlando did well to avoid allowing many clear-cut chances from them, although Victor Wanyama came free and bundled it wide on one such set piece in the 75th minute.
With the game still poised on a knife edge, Montreal went down a man in the 79th minute. Camacho came charging forward and flew into a challenge with studs up, taking out Dike. Villarreal wasted no time going to his pocket for his red card and the hosts were down to 10 men. It was the first red card by an Orlando opponent in the 2021 season.
After a couple more corners, the Lions capitalized on their manpower advantage as Montreal pressed more players into the attack. Ruan took possession of the ball and made a strong run up the field, cutting slightly inside to split two players. He then sent a perfect through ball into the path of Dike, who took a touch and then slotted past Breza to make it 2-0 in the 86th minute.
Pareja sent on defensive subs Rodrigo Schlegel, Kyle Smith, and Tesho Akindele to see the game out and the Lions were able to do that without allowing another good opportunity. Bjorn Johnsen got a weak header on frame in the 94th minute but it was an easy catch for Gallese. Orlando saw out the remaining minute of stoppage time and earned its playoff spot.
Montreal finished with more shots (12-10) but each team got three on target. The hosts also held more possession (55.1%-44.9%), won more corners (12-4), and passed with more accuracy (83.7%-76.6%).
“I think today we were more patient with the game,” Pareja said. “Our games at home against Montreal, we wanted to go press them high and and somehow we didn’t have that fina touch in the last third that can give us the opportunity to score. And Montreal on isolated plays hurt us. Today was the opposite.”
“We knew that we were going to come into a game that was going to be hotly contested,” Mendez said. “So, we came in with everything we had and now we’re in the playoffs and ready to move forward to the next weekend.”
That’s it for the 2021 MLS regular season. Orlando City will travel to Nashville for its first-ever road playoff game.