CHARLOTTE, NC — Ercan Kara opened the scoring and his replacement, Tesho Akindele, scored late as Orlando City defeated Charlotte FC in its first trip to Bank of America Stadium. Akindele’s goal in the 89th minute lifted the Lions (10-10-6, 36 points) back to the .500 mark in the standings in a much-needed win over Charlotte (10-15-2, 32 points).
McKinze Gaines scored for the hosts but Orlando City was able to sweep the season series over the new MLS side. With the other results around the league on Sunday night, Orlando climbed back into fifth in the Eastern Conference.
“An excellent game to show the character of the players,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “Excellent game to prove that these guys are working hard and the game will reward them.”
Pareja’s lineup included Pedro Gallese in goal behind a back line of Kyle Smith, Rodrigo Schlegel, Antonio Carlos, and Ruan. Robin Jansson picked up a foot injury late this week in training and was held out to allow time for evaluation. Cesar Araujo and Mauricio Pereyra played in central midfield behind an attacking midfield line of Jake Mulraney, Junior Urso, and Facundo Torres, with Kara returning to the lineup at striker.
The hosts had a half-chance in the third minute on a long-range free kick. The ball somehow cleared everyone and caught Gallese by surprise but he managed to fight it off at the last moment and Ruan cleared.
A minute later, the Lions got a free kick in a good spot to the right of the box. Pereyra found Carlos but he couldn’t get much weight behind his header. The ball fell to Kara’s feet but his shot attempt was blocked.
Kerwin Vargas sent a curling shot wide in the seventh minute after Mulraney lost an aerial duel — due in large part because he didn’t jump — and ignited Charlotte’s break. Mulraney was booked for a foul behind the play after the ball sailed wide.
The game settled into a cagey affair for the next segment, with each team probing for a way through. Orlando sent a couple of passes out right to try to unlock Ruan but weighted them poorly.
Torres finally tested Kristijan Kahlina in the 27th minute with a shot from outside the area but he left the effort too close to the middle of goal and the goalkeeper was able to make the save.
Three minutes later, Vargas tried his luck from outside the left corner of the box, smashing a near-post effort that Gallese parried away.
Urso got his head to a Mulraney cross in the 34th minute but his shot deflected off a defender for a corner.
The Lions were called for a foul on the ensuing corner when there was contact with Kahlina on a 50/50 cross, wasting the opportunity. Three minutes later, Urso badly scuffed a shot attempt from distance and it rolled weakly in for Kahlina to collect.
The Lions couldn’t make a couple of late corner kicks pay off, Smith smashed a screamer off target in stoppage time, and the teams went to the break tied at 0-0.
Orlando City finished the half with more possession (57%-43%), shots (7-3), shots on target (2-1), corners (4-0), and passing accuracy (86.5%-83.3%).
“The football that the team played in the first half was very good,” Pareja said. “We dominated the tempo. We created chances. We avoided (them) to create chances. We made superiority in the spaces that we needed. I saw a lot of discipline tactically, especially with the ball with this group of players.”
Charlotte came out of the locker room with more intensity to start the second half and the hosts’ press created some half-chances. But the half started with a good cross by Mulraney which he sent in way too early before teammates could arrive, and a weak dribbler on goal by Pereyra.
Carlos was booked in the 39th minute after conceding a dangerous free kick just outside the area. Karol Swiderski took the set piece and sent his shot into the outside netting to Gallese’s right.
Quinn McNeill fired at Gallese after a turnover in the 56th minute as Charlotte continued to attack.
But Orlando got back on the front foot and took the lead in the 62nd minute. Urso picked out Torres in the middle and the Young Designated Player sent a perfect through ball to pick out Kara, who finished calmly past Kahlina to make it 1-0. For Kara, it was his team-leading eighth goal of the MLS regular season.
“It was an amazing pass from Facundo Torres,” Kara said. “I saw the space and he gave me a real good ball. I saw the long side and that’s it.”
The home crowd wanted an offside call and the referee did appear to have a conversation with the video assistant referee but the goal stood. Kara said he wasn’t worried about it being pulled back.
“I saw the last man. I think it was (Christian) Fuchs,” Kara said. “In my mind, I was sure that it was clear that there was no offside.”
The lead didn’t last long, however. A cross in from Kamil Józwiak on the attacking left found Gaines, who split Schlegel and Smith and headed in from point-blank range to tie the match at 1-1 in the 66th minute.
“Second half, we understand that just being away that sometimes you want to hold the game higher,” Pareja said. “That it’s normal that the reaction of the other team is aggressive and cost us that tied goal. But I noticed that our reaction after that goal was very professional and calm and that just made us score the second one, which is something that hasn’t happened much in this season, so we’re very proud.”
Kahlina made his best save in the 70th minute after Kara was knocked down from behind by Derrick Jones, who was booked, and the Lions got a free kick straight out from goal. Pereyra took the set piece and sent a good, accurate shot on target but couldn’t get enough oomph on it to sneak it past the diving goalkeeper.
Down the stretch, Orlando struggled to possess the ball. Pareja made some changes to try to solidify things and take off tired players or guys on a yellow card, but Charlotte dictated play, winning set pieces and throw-ins in the Lions’ end.
Akindele put the Lions ahead out of nowhere on the counter. He raced down the right to reach a pass from Urso and sent a shot on goal that Kahlina saved. The ball caromed back to the Canadian and this time he sent his shot into the net to make it 2-1 in the 89th minute. It was Akindele’s first goal of the season.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember starting to play, but the first thing I remember is Urso having the ball,” Akindele said. “And I just saw a gap and I was just like, ‘I gotta go.’ So, I just took off as fast as I could and Urso gave me the perfect pass. And you know, my first shot I should have done a little bit better, to be honest. But you’ve got to (have) short-term memory as a forward, like they say. That was the ultimate example of that. Ball came right back to me and I tried to stay calm and just place it in the corner.”
The Lions couldn’t have been too happy when the fourth official showed seven minutes of added time. There were two second-half injury stoppages but seven still seemed excessive. Orlando City was able to control the game for most of the first three or four minutes of injury time and saw out a second consecutive road win. First, the Lions had to survive a scare in the dying seconds as Brandt Bronico fired a shot just over the bar on nearly the last kick of the match.
Charlotte turned around the possession in the second half, finishing with a slight advantage (50.7%-49.3%) and even edged out Orlando in passing accuracy (82.9%-82.4%), but the Lions led in shots (13-9), shots on goal (7-3), and corners (5-2).
“We need to get better. We need to control those tempos,” Pareja said. “But suddenly, after they scored, we did that. We sustained the game and just tried to look for the second goal in transition, which is something that the boys brought — the substitutions — and we found a way to get these three points in a very difficult match, especially the second half.”
“Super important for us because, just like every other team, our goal is to win the MLS Cup, and you can’t win if you’re not in the playoffs,” Akindele said. “That’s definitely step one. The bare minimum we need to do is get into the playoffs to give ourselves the chance to win MLS Cup. And so it feels good to stay in there, give ourselves a little bit of a cushion, but it’s still tight. If you kind of fall asleep for a week or two, all of a sudden you’re out of it again and we know that and we’re going to keep our foot on the gas.”
The Lions return home next Sunday for a home meeting with New York City FC.