Orlando City recovered from giving up two first-half goals but could have won had yet another controversial video review not gone against the Lions. Maxime Chanot’s handball on a Dom Dwyer attempt was not called and then not overturned on video review, as the Lions drew New York City FC 2-2 at Orlando City Stadium. The Lions (0-0-1, 1 point) snapped a four-game losing streak to NYCFC (0-0-1, 1 point) and are now 5-5-3 in the all-time series.
“We felt we didn’t deserve to be two-nil down, but we were two-nil down,” said Head Coach James O’Connor after the game. “So, like we said, you either sit and feel sorry for yourself or you get out and you keep believing and you keep pushing and you keep doing the things that we’d spoken about. And I think we were very unfortunate not to go on and win the game at the end. I think there was some kind of controversy or some handball or something, so we go from two-nil down to having a real opportunity to go and win the game.”
O’Connor opted to start mainly the same team that faced NYCFC two weeks ago in the Orlando City Invitational. With Nani having missed a few days of training and flying back a day before the match, the Portuguese star began the game on the bench. He was alongside Dwyer, who was fit enough to be available but not 90-minute match fit after missing the bulk of preseason. Lamine Sané didn’t even make the 18, as O’Connor’s back line featured rookie Kamal Miller, newcomer Alex De John, and Shane O’Neill.
City began the game with good spells of possession but the Lions weren’t really able to generate a lot of clear-cut chances, as the New York City defense and midfield kept the lads in purple away from goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Still, the first shot of the half came five minutes in when Will Johnson fired just inches wide of the post.
New York scored in the 13th minute through Ebenezer Ofori, who was given too much space about 25 yards out, straight above the penalty area. Sebas Mendez was slow to close Ofori down and his shot was hit with power and was well placed just inside Brian Rowe’s post to make it 1-0.
Chris Mueller should have tied the game two minutes later. He was slipped into the top of the area by O’Neill and had either side to choose from but he fired wide of the right post in a chance he’ll no doubt want back.
A minute later, Sacha Kljestan shot from just inside the top of the area but didn’t get all of it and hit it right at Sean Johnson.
Will Johnson (no relation) took a nice layoff pass from Kljestan above the area in the 25th minute but got under it and fired well over the bar, as the Lions missed the net on seven of their eight first-half shot attempts. Eventually the attack started to become just lumping the ball over the top for Tesho Akindele, but he was a lone wolf against three defenders most times, and that was never going to work.
Assistant referee Kevin Klinger appeared to pull a hamstring late in the half and had to switch out with the fourth official in an incident you don’t see every day.
Orlando was lucky not to give up a goal in the 41st minute when Chanot’s free header on a corner kick was sent wide of goal. But the Pigeons got a second just before halftime through Alexander Ring, who took a pass from Alexandru Mitrita, which nutmegged De John, and got in behind the defense before beating Rowe to make it 2-0.
Minutes later, the first half mercifully ended. Orlando City held 62% of the possession to just 38% for NYCFC, but the Lions had little purpose in their attack, despite also being the better passing side (82%-75%). Shots were 8-6 Orlando (1-3 on target, however).
“I thought we were extremely unlucky to be going in two-nil down,” O’Connor said. “I think when you look at the balance of play first half, we had a lot of possession, we were camped in their half, we had multiple good opportunities — I think we were all a little frustrated to go in two-nil down.”
The tide turned in the second half, but it took a few minutes. Kyle Smith had the first good opportunity of the second half, forcing a good Sean Johnson save in the 51st minute. De John got under the cross on the ensuing corner and couldn’t direct Mueller’s pass on frame, as it was just a bit high.
But Mueller pulled the Lions back into the game in the 59th minute. After Kljestan was pulled down out on the left side, just above the penalty area, Mueller stepped up to the ball. The second-year player delivered a dangerous ball into the box that took a bounce and found its way inside the back post. The delivery forced Sean Johnson to decide between playing the oncoming attackers or the ball, and he could only watch as Mueller made it 2-1.
“I just wanted to put it into a dangerous area,” Mueller said. “And I made sure that if no one got a touch onto it, it would creep into that back post area and that’s exactly what ended up happening. So it was good to get the team back into the game.”
Mueller’s goal was the first scored by any Lion in a competitive game against NYCFC since Cyle Larin’s second goal in a 2-1 win on April 23, 2017.
The teams battled back and forth, mostly in the middle of the pitch, for the next 10 minutes or so, and then the game changed again when O’Connor sent Dwyer and Nani onto the pitch in exchange for Smith and Mendez.
“You could hear it, couldn’t you, in the stadium?” Mueller said when asked if he could feel the energy change when Nani and Dwyer checked in. “It got pretty loud in the stadium and I think that just gave us a little bit of an extra boost. Guys were getting tired and they came on and they created a very nice goal together. It was awesome.”
Just five minutes after coming on, Nani — on one of his first few touches as a Lion — unlocked the NYCFC defense with one long pass, sending Dwyer behind the back line on the left. Dom drew Johnson over toward him and slipped a centering pass to Akindele, who tapped it in to open his Orlando City account.
“I thought they came in and they made a huge impact,” Akindele said of Nani and Dwyer entering the game. “I think one of Nani’s first touches was the pass to set Dom through. One of Dom’s first touches was an assist. So that just shows the quality they bring and the depth we have up top.”
Akindele had to leave the game after the goal but said he was just cramping up due to the heat and the effort put into the match.
“I was like, happy (after scoring the goal), but then my body was cramping, so it was kind of weird,” he said, laughing. “I was trying to be like real happy and celebrate but I couldn’t. So, next time maybe I’ll have a better celebration.”
With the game tied, Orlando looked for the winner and it appeared the Lions had their chance to grab it in the 80th minute. Mueller sent in a good cross that Dwyer knocked toward goal. The ball hit Chanot’s arm and Dwyer emphatically screamed for a penalty. Once there was a stop in play, video assistant referee Jose Carlos Rivero buzzed down to referee Baldomero Toledo, who stopped the game and reviewed the play on a monitor.
Although replays show Chanot’s hand out away from his body and moving in a way so as to block the flight of the ball, Toledo did not overturn the play and no penalty was awarded. Following the game, the game officials issued this statement to the pool reporter covering the game:
“The VAR recommended a review for a potential handling in the penalty area. After review, the referee determined that the defender did not deliberately handle the ball.”
O’Connor clarified that he hadn’t seen a good replay of the incident in the box but several players had told him it was a clear-cut handball.
The Pigeons had one more good opportunity, but Rowe was able to deny Mitrita from a tight angle late in the game, and, after 90 minutes plus four minutes of stoppage time, neither team had a win.
Shots for the match were even at 13 apiece, with New York City putting six on frame to Orlando’s four. The Lions held 58% of the possession to NYCFC’s 42%, and Orlando connected on 80% of its passes to the visitors’ 73%.
“I felt like overall the team’s performance was really good. It definitely hurts not to get the three points on the first day but I think that we showed a lot of character fighting back.,” Mueller said.
“I think it’s cool to see the response but obviously you don’t want to put yourself in a position where we go down at all,” Akindele said. “And to be honest, I think that start to finish, I think we outplayed them. I think they had two chances against the run of play that they did really well, that they took advantage of, but honestly I think we completely outplayed them.”
Nani said after the game that he was feeling the effects of the travel but he hopes to be able to start “after a very good week of training.” O’Connor said he went through several instances in his mind of when he’d bring in Nani and Dwyer, who hadn’t trained much with the team this preseason.
“I think if I’m being honest I didn’t envision the two lads getting the minutes that they did,” O’Connor said of his plan on when to use Nani and Dwyer. “But I knew in the back of my mind if we needed a goal or we needed something to change the game, then them two were going to go on. They both deserve a lot of credit because they’ve not done a lot of training. To go on and impact the game like they did, some of the play and the heart that they showed was really encouraging.”
With yet another first-game draw, the Lions are now 1-0-4 in their opening day matches since joining the league.
Orlando City will be back in action next Saturday at the Chicago Fire. Game time is 1 p.m.