Facundo Torres’ second-half penalty kick goal snapped a 1-1 draw and lifted Orlando City to a 2-1 home win over the Columbus Crew at Exploria Stadium on Decision Day. With the victory, the Lions (14-14-6, 48 points) qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs while knocking the Columbus Crew (10-8-16, 46 points) out of postseason contention.
Junior Urso pulled the Lions back into the game after Derrick Etienne’s first-half goal had put the Crew on top to start the comeback and Orlando finished above .500 at home (9-8-0) after a difficult season at Exploria Stadium.
“Very happy and very proud of the club, of the community who had put Orlando City on the map of MLS as a protagonist, and a community, a club, who wants to fight for things,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “We feel great, and obviously with a big responsiblity to continue, but it’s a great day for us. We overcome, that’s the culture of us — probably too much, but we’re enjoying it. It’s a very difficult game today with all the circumstances around it but the boys found a way to qualify and it’s a big thing for us.”
Pareja’s starting lineup included Pedro Gallese in goal behind a makeshift back line of Joao Moutinho, Rodrigo Schlegel, Kyle Smith, and Ruan. Cesar Araujo started in central midfield with Mauricio Pereyra playing his deep-lying playmaker role behind an attacking midfield line of Ivan Angulo, Junior Urso, and Facundo Torres, with Ercan Kara up top.
The Lions plodded through the opening 45 minutes, playing cautiously but offering very little bite in the attack. There were far too many attempts to play the most difficult pass available in transition and Columbus did well to limit space.
Despite that, Orlando had the first look at goal with Schlegel popping a weak header well over the bar seven minutes in. Ruan was chopped down by Pedro Santos in transition two minutes later and the Crew fullback was booked for it but the Lions did nothing with the set piece.
Urso tried a shot from distance in the 11th minute but it was deflected and fell easily in for Eloy Room to collect.
After that, the Crew started to settle into the game and keep possession. The Lions did pretty well to limit clear-cut opportunities but only Columbus seemed likely to score for the rest of the half.
Cucho Hernandez headed just barely over the bar in the 14th minute after Ruan gave Etienne too much space on the flank to get a cross in. It was a lazy first half throughout by the Brazilian and his casual jog back on the switch of play allowed Etienne to easily collect it and get into position to send in a dangerous ball.
In the 22nd, Ruan was called for his second (incidental) handball in as many games, giving the Crew a set piece on the left. The visitors played it short and nothing came of it.
Gallese made a huge save in the 35th minute on Hernandez, who shot from the top of the area and picked out a spot just inside the left post. Gallese got there just in time to knock it off the post and keep it out.
Columbus broke through in the 38th minute and it was Ruan in the middle of things again. Lucas Zelarayan gathered a crowd of defenders in the top of the box and Ruan was negligent in letting Etienne get inside to run onto a backheel pass, slotting it inside the far post to make it 1-0. Ruan could perhaps have stretched out to try to block the shot but instead Etienne’s look at goal was unimpeded.
Etienne hurt himself on the play and had to be replaced by former Lion Kevin Molino.
Predictably, Orlando came out of its defensive shell after the goal and looked to push forward but presented no danger in the closing moments of the first half. Kara should have won a free kick just outside the box in stoppage time but instead referee Alex Chilowicz called the Austrian for the foul. I watched the replay three times on my monitor and didn’t see him do anything that warranted a whistle.
Columbus held a slight edge in possession (50.9%-49.1%) and passed slightly more accurately (88.6%-88.3%), but the visitors had more shots (7-3), shot on target (3-1), and corners (3-0).
“We felt the first half that we had low energy,” Pareja said. “Not that we didn’t want it, but they were playing us, especially in the middle, just putting a lot of numbers there that we couldn’t resolve. Junior and Mauricio were running way too much. And then the times that we possessed the ball we were turning it (over) very quick as well. But the key in the second half when we spoke was just to be patient. Trust in us. Trust in your teammates. I saw them with energy there. It was not on the field but the energy was within us.”
“When the first half was over we were in the locker room and Oscar tried to push us,” Urso said. “That moment we were out of the playoffs so we tried to do our best to turn the game to put us inside again.”
The Lions were much better after the break, especially Urso. Pareja moved the team out of a double pivot and played Urso, Araujo, and Pereyra as a three-man midfield and it allowed the Lions to get more involved. Orlando was also able to win the ball further up the pitch as a result.
Pereyra nearly sent Kara in behind in the 51st minute but he hit the pass too hard. But the captain found his assist a few minutes later. Pereyra sent a pass to Urso at the top of the area and the Brazilian made a fantastic turn to beat his defender, then slotted his shot inside the post to tie the game at 1-1 in the 56th minute.
“In the moment of the goal, when Mauricio gave me the ball, I saw the defender was coming at my back,” Urso said. “So I just thought about the turn and tried not to put power on the shot, just to put it on the side and it was amazing. I try many times in training — I don’t know if you guys are there to see — there Mason (Stajduhar) stops my goals but this keeper, he don’t know me, so it was good. I’m happy.”
Two minutes later, the Lions should have had a free kick in a decent area outside the box when there was a handball but Chilowicz didn’t see it and the Crew broke the other way. The Lions were eventually able to snuff out the transition opportunity but Araujo was booked for a professional foul on the play.
Gallese did well to parry a Hernandez shot out of play in the 62nd minute and the Lions survived the set piece and a free kick conceded just outside the box by Schlegel.
Torres had been quiet in the match until the 80th minute, when he took a pass near the left corner of the box and fired a shot that forced a good save from Room to deny. On the ensuing corner kick, Torres sent an outswinger across the box and Schlegel headed back across to the front of the goal. Second-half sub Benji Michel chested the ball down and took his shot on the volley and it hit the outstretched arms of Crew defender Milos Degenek.
Although Chilowicz did not make a call initially, he ended up taking a look at the video monitor. The penalty was clear and obvious and Degenek was booked.
Torres immediately stepped up and he slammed his shot high to the right, over Room, who guessed correctly and appeared to be off his line early anyway. The Lions led 2-1 in the 84th minute. It was Torres’ ninth goal of the MLS season.
“When the penalty happened it was pretty much decided that I was going to take it,” Torres said through a club interpeter. “So the first thing I thought was, ‘Where am I going to put this ball?’ And then I just made sure I was focusing and concentrating on getting ready to take it and thankfully everything worked out.”
There was still a lot to do for Orlando to close out the match, and Zelarayan forced a good save from the Gallese in the 86th. Pareja subbed liberally down the stretch to get fresh legs on the pitch and Columbus wasn’t able to get into position for a clear-cut chance. The Crew’s best chance to equalize came in the 96th minute when Gallese made a good save to keep out another shot from Zelarayan.
The Lions saw out the remaining time and found themselves in the postseason for the third straight year — all three seasons since Pareja took over. They also managed to avoid missing the postseason after winning a trophy like the Seattle Sounders did.
Columbus finished with more possession (54.4%-45.6%), shots (13-8), shots on target (6-4), corners (7-3), and passing accuracy (89.6%-86.8%). But it was Orlando’s goalkeeping and shot placement that made the difference. Gallese finished with five saves.
“We spoke (at halftime) about being very strong in the first 15 minutes and just throw what we have in the second half, and the response was going to bring us more energy. And I thought that was what happened,” Pareja said. “So, I’m very proud of these guys. They showed us one more time the character that they have. And then the end of the game was a typical Orlando City game. We would like to suffer less but this is where we are today.”
Orlando City will play CF Montreal in the first round of the 2022 MLS Cup playoffs. The Lions split the season series with Montreal, with each team winning at home.