Saturday night’s contest against the Montreal Impact was an especially important one for Orlando City. The Lions (7-5-4, 25 points) were coming off a listless showing in their mid-week U.S. Open Cup match, and that effort, combined with Cyle Larin’s DUI arrest the morning after, left a cloud hanging over the club for the past several days.
It wasn’t the full three-point outing that the club and its fans were hoping for, but it was entertaining and the Lions showed a lot more what-for — albeit against a ninth-place side — in a dramatic 3-3 draw vs. Montreal Impact (4-4-6, 18 points) capped by a Jonathan Spector goal in second-half stoppage time.
There were legitimate concerns about Orlando’s ability to score without its main man up top (Larin had scored 50% of the club’s goals this season entering the game), but those concerns were at least temporarily eased by a fast offensive start against the Impact.
Despite playing without its leading scorer, Orlando City didn’t waste much time getting things going on the offensive end. Kaká — making his first start since a May 21 calf injury vs. NYCFC — sent in a cross from the left wing that Will Johnson took a stab at with a volley, but the Canadian was unable to keep his effort down enough and sent it sailing over the bar. It didn’t take long for Orlando to open the scoring, however, as five minutes later Kaká managed more impressive work down the left side, getting past Hassoun Camara with ease and pulling back a cross that Matías Pérez García was able to adjust to — he found it about a half-yard behind him as his momentum took him toward goal — and finish left-footed for his first goal in an Orlando City shirt.
While well-worked, the goal was not without a bit of controversy, as the ball was very close to being over the end line when Kaká chased it down and sent it back to MPG. It was tough to tell live and from certain camera angles on replay, but it’s safe to say our Canadian counterparts at Mount Royal Soccer weren’t as pleased with the end result as we were.
Nevertheless, City found itself up a goal just seven minutes in.
Perhaps a bit of karmic retribution was repaid in minute 16 by Jose Aja, who, instead of clearing the danger while being closed down by Ignacio Piatti, decided to dance around and was subsequently stripped by the Argentinian, who took full advantage of the defender’s gaffe and found an open Blerim Dzemaili in the box, who confidently slotted home near-post to knot the game at 1-1.
Continuing the trend of an exciting first half, though, Orlando answered less than 10 minutes later.
Giles Barnes played MPG into the box nicely, and the Argentinian laid it back to Johnson, whose first-time shot was parried back by Evan Bush and into the legs of his own center back Laurent Ciman just off the goal line, but the deflection off the Belgian fell perfectly for Rivas to smash home a go-ahead goal and make it 2-1 in minute 23 for Orlando. While Ciman’s knees kept Johnson from getting credit for the score, the Colombian Rivas left no doubt with his rifle of a finish on the rebound.
All of a sudden, an Orlando team that had averaged fewer than 1.1 goals per match coming in had netted two in the opening 25 minutes, and without Larin.
After another series of chances that included a beautiful one-two combination play from the likes of Rivas and Barnes, as well as a backheel nutmeg of Camara by Kaká, Orlando City finished the first half with a 14-2 shot advantage and 60% of the possession, but the one-goal advantage felt like it could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, been greater.
The failure to capitalize on chances in the first half predictably came back to bite Orlando City, as Montreal’s dynamic midfielder Piatti sprung for two goals in a two-minute span, with Lions center back Spector being bested both times.
Piatti used a clever touch on the first goal to set himself up on his right leg, side-stepping Spector in the process before finishing with a low burner that made it through Joe Bendik’s legs. Piatti struck again almost instantly in minute 59 when he cut to the inside of Spector to the left this time and fired another shot at Bendik. This time the Lions’ keeper was able to make the save, but Piatti was the only man left standing among a pile of three Orlando City players who had gone to ground to try to defend the first shot, and he easily tapped home his eighth goal of the season to put the Impact ahead 3-2, just like that.
The flow of the game had suddenly been flipped, and the energetic attacking we saw from the Lions in the first half was dampened quite a bit. Lacking Larin up top, the Lions didn’t have too many options to go to for an offensive boost off the bench, but the attacking crew of Kaká, Rivas, Barnes, and Pérez García continued to fight to create chances to equalize.
After several more missed opportunities to produce chances — Barnes launched an awkward left-footed shot well wide despite having an open Johnson rushing down the middle, and played a through ball just too far for a charging Kaká minutes later, to name a couple — it seemed like hope was lost for Orlando.
One thing we’ve learned about these Lions, though, is that they’ll continue to fight until the last breath. That held true again, as Spector managed a bit of redemption in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time, beautifully redirecting a header off an MPG corner across the face of Bush’s goal and into the top left corner to salvage a point and a 3-3 finish. The corner was one in a series that Orlando earned with its all-out siege of Montreal’s 18-yard box in search of an equalizer.
Despite the disappointing sequence where Piatti scored twice in as many minutes — something Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis described post-match as his team shooting itself in the foot — the late equalizer represented a silver lining and showed the resilience of this Lions side again.
“For me, a big, big positive was the guys continued to work really hard,” Kreis told the media. “On most nights with most teams, they would’ve packed it in [after two quick goals]. But our guys kept fighting and kept believing, so we get to walk out with at least a point.”
The Lions controlled 58% of the ball on the evening and generated 17 shots, not bad at all for a team that had struggled to score consistently even with Larin in the lineup. The back-to-back Piatti goals took a lot of luster off the final result, but the three goals scored were a big positive for City and the effort and fight until the end was a needed response following Wednesday’s result vs. Miami FC.
Lions fullback Donny Toia, who spent two seasons with Montreal, echoed his coach’s sentiments following the match, acknowledging the excitement of the finish while admitting he and his teammates could’ve sealed it much earlier.
“It’s one point versus zero, so we’re happy with one,” Toia said. “We had opportunities to make it 3-1 and we didn’t put it away and then we gave up those silly goals. So it’s definitely frustrating, but at the same time you’ve got to look at it as a positive because we didn’t lose, we came out with a point.”
The Lions, who remain in fourth place in the Eastern Conference behind New York City FC, are back to it on Wednesday in the Pacific Northwest as they travel for a 10:30 p.m. ET showdown with the Seattle Sounders.