A tired-looking Orlando City team withstood some lumps in their third match in a week but goals by Chris Mueller and Nani brought the Lions back from a 1-0 deficit to win for the first time at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Orlando (6-1-3, 21 points) earned all nine possible points in a difficult stretch of three matches in a seven-day span, finishing it off by keeping rival Inter Miami (2-6-2, 8 points) winless at home on the season.
With the win, Orlando took a 3-2-0 edge in the Tropic Thunder series. Every meeting so far has been decided by a single goal.
“Three points — that means a lot for us,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “It’s a derby. This is a game that we wanted to win, playing in their place here. We haven’t done it. After a long week, we felt it. We have heavy legs, and I think the boys did an excellent job overcoming that part.”
Pareja made only a few changes from Tuesday’s lineup, playing Brandon Austin in goal again behind a back line of Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, and Michael Halliday. The fact that Joao Moutinho didn’t dress is telling and perhaps a bad sign for the young left back. Junior Urso and Andres Perea took their usual spots in the central midfield, but Silvester van der Water and Mauricio Pereyra displaced Mueller and Benji Michel in the lineup. Nani and Daryl Dike again led the attack.
Miami came out with a lot of emotion, as expected considering the recent events surrounding the building collapse and the full stands. The Herons pressed all over the field, knowing Orlando was playing its third match in a week.
Austin made a big save just three minutes in on a Jay Chapman effort after Smith failed to clear a ball in the corner and the deflection fell for Miami. The hosts won a couple of early corners but didn’t do much with them.
Orlando started growing into the game after the first quarter hour, with Urso getting onto a long ball from Nani but firing high of the goal. The Lions dealt with a corner and looked to break in the 19th minute on a great long ball from Dike, but van der Water opted to pass instead of shoot and his weak pass was off target and easily cut out by the defense.
Former Lion Brek Shea fired wide in the 23rd minute after a terrible giveaway just outside the area by the Orlando defense. Four minutes later, Nani wasted a promising opportunity by trying a shot from long range that was off target. A minute later, Urso stepped in front of a pass out of the back from Miami and fired but his shot was deflected out for a corner. Again, van der Water’s delivery let him down on the ensuing set piece, as his low delivery was easily cleared and nearly led to a transition opportunity.
Orlando started seeing more of the ball but every movement was slow, deliberate, and posed no threat to the Miami defense. There was no service to Dike, who managed just 10 touches in the opening 45 minutes.
Urso had a terrible giveaway late in the half that led to another chance from Chapman but he fired his shot straight at Austin.
Miami led in shots (6-4), shots on goal (2-0), corners (4-1), and passing accuracy (83.6%-83.3%) in the first half. Orlando held a 54%-46% edge in possession but didn’t do a lot with it.
Looking for some energy and tempo, Pareja sent on Mueller and Michel for van der Water and Pereyra at the half.
The move seemed to pay off almost right away. After an early header by Victor Ulloa was headed wide, the Lions got into the attack. Mueller sent a cross just a couple inches too high for Urso in the 49th minute and the ball fell to Nani. The captain sent a shot on target but John McCarthy was able to make the save. Moments later, Halliday sent in a cross that was just a few inches over Dike.
In the 58th minute, the Lions fashioned their best chance of the night to that point when Urso slipped Mueller down the right side of the box. Cash fired on frame but McCarthy was able to get a foot to it and keep it out.
Nani fizzed a free kick — drawn by Dike — just wide of goal in the 64th as the Lions continued to get opportunities in the second half. But the goal seemed like it would never come for an obviously tired Orlando City team.
Just three minutes after Nani’s free kick miss, the hosts opened the scoring. Second-half sub Gonzalo Higuain got the ball 30 yards out from goal and Urso just didn’t have the gas left in the tank needed to stay with him. Higuain sent a hard, low shot just inside the left post to make it 1-0.
Orlando kept coming, getting a couple of half chances from set pieces after the Higuain goal and eventually the breakthrough came on a play that started deep in the Lions’ own end. Jansson sent a fantastic long ball down the right channel for Nani, who used his first touch to send the ball across the penalty area. Mueller ran onto it and he sent his first touch past McCarthy, tying the game at 1-1 in the 73rd minute. It was Mueller’s first goal of the 2021 season.
“It’s nice obviously to get the first one but honestly I wasn’t really trippin’ about it,” Mueller said of opening his 2021 account. “I know that when you stick to the process and just keep doing the right things day in and day out those things are bound to come in time. I knew I was getting myself in some good spots and I was going to get my first goal. And obviously that was a great way to do it. I mean, the ball was so high up in the air. I was just trying to get on the end of it before it bounced and I don’t even know how I hit it, honestly. It just went off my foot and went in, and thankfully we got that goal to get back into the game.”
“I look forward to helping the team in anything I can do on the field,” Nani said. “That’s why on that pass from Jansson I tried to assist any of my teammates in the box and that was the change of the game. It was a beautiful assist and a great goal from Chris Mueller. And it gave us a little more energy.”
The Lions weren’t content with the tie score. Nani sent a shot through on net in the 75th minute but McCarthy was able to make a comfortable save. A minute later, Halliday got down the right but took one touch too many and then sent his cross over the net and out of play. Moments later, the captain called game.
Nani got the ball out wide on Orlando’s attacking left and cut toward the corner of the box. Miami failed to close him down, so he sent a rocket between two defenders into the upper right corner where McCarthy had no chance to reach it. The Lions led 2-1 in the 80th minute.
Miami lumped a few balls into the area down the stretch but nothing came of it. The Herons sent a shot wide in the 87th minute and chief antagonist Leandro Gonzalez Pirez headed well over the bar in the third minute of stoppage time. Orlando walked off the field for the third time in seven days with all three points.
The Lions turned the stats sheet around in the second half, finishing with more shots (11-10), more shots on goal (6-3), and more possession (52.9%-47.1%). Miami held slim margins in corners (5-4) and passing accuracy (84.3%-84.2%).
“First half was difficult for us,” Pareja said. “We had players who were doing a terrific effort on overcoming the tiredness. Then we knew with Benji and Chris and Tesho we’d have fresh legs. They came in the second half to do that and they lifted us up. The transformation in the second half is due to their energy, their discipline, and obviously that magic touch we have with Luis Nani.”
“We wanted to win this game more than anything,” Nani said. “We came here not to perform, but to win the game, so we knew (it would be) very difficult at the beginning, because we had three games in one week. We lost a lot a lot of energy, but our team, our strength, our mentality, gave us extra strength in the last minutes so we could handle the game and then win the game at the last minute.”
“We’re going to enjoy this one obviously for the night and get back to Orlando, and do our full recovery and take care of ourselves,” Mueller said. “You know, do the things that we’ve got to do to make sure our bodies are all feeling right, so that we can come back out next week against Red Bulls and give it our all again. That’s what this game is.”
The Lions now get a normal week to rest before hosting the New York Red Bulls next Saturday night, July 3.