Orlando City did not look like the same team that cruised through the final weeks of the regular season and had ousted a tough Nashville team in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs on this night. The Lions were completely overrun at Exploria Stadium by the visiting Columbus Crew in normal time during tonight’s Eastern Conference semifinals match, but despite being down a man after a needless second yellow card from Rodrigo Schlegel, the Lions took the match into extra time before bowing out.
Christian Ramirez got a fortunate rebound off Pedro Gallese’s hand in extra time that hit him and trickled in to break the 0-0 deadlock. Cucho Hernandez added a late insurance goal with the Lions pressed forward, looking for an equalizer. In between, Orlando City had multiple excellent chances to equalize but couldn’t put the ball in the net.
With the loss — the Lions’ first at Exploria Stadium since April 22, a span of 15 matches in all competitions (10-0-5) — Orlando City saw its most successful season since joining Major League Soccer come to a conclusion.
“I thought we could have done much more than that and advance,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the match. “But we have to accept that this is the result of a game that is competitive against a rival who made his case as well to advance through this series. Complicated game, especially in the first half. We felt uncomfortable and couldn’t create many sequences.”
Pareja’s starting lineup produced no surprises, with Gallese in goal behind a back line of Rafael Santos, Robin Jansson, Schlegel, and Dagur Dan Thorhallsson. Cesar Araujo and Wilder Cartagena played central midfield behind an attacking line of Ivan Angulo, Mauricio Pereyra, and Facundo Torres, with Duncan McGuire up top.
The first half was a cagey one, with Orlando seemingly reluctant to push forward much, yet Columbus applied its usual pressure and looked to counter quickly. The Crew won an early corner after it appeared Thorhallsson had been fouled out of his shoe, but referee Jon Freemon didn’t call it and Columbus took its throw-in quickly. Gallese caught the ensuing corner cross.
Moments later, Schlegel did well to break up a Crew attack in transition after Jansson lost sight of the ball. The Crew then got a free kick in a dangerous position after it appeared Mohamed Farsi was offside and Cartagena broke up the play with a foul. Instead of the flag coming up, the set piece was awarded but the wall did its job and blocked the ensuing attempt.
The Lions got their best chance of the half in the 13th minute when Angulo blazed down the left after taking a pass from Araujo. He cut a nice pass into the middle for Torres, who took an extra touch rather than firing first time. The Uruguayan then blazed a shot that was just inches high, skipping off the top of the net.
Alexandru Matan scuffed a shot attempt in the 14th minute that Gallese saved.
In the 20th minute, Angulo was sent in behind and appeared to be in on goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, but just before he could pull the trigger on his shot, Steven Moreira flew in from behind to poke it away.
Gallese made a huge save in the 23rd minute to deny Diego Rossi as the Crew continued to look dangerous in transition. Seconds later, Schlegel did well to make a sliding block of a cross, conceding a corner but preventing a scoring chance. The Crew couldn’t do anything with the set piece.
Hernandez had a shot blocked in the 26th minute for another Crew corner but again the Lions handled the set piece.
Rossi freed himself for a shot from outside the box in the 33rd minute but missed the target high and to the right. Three minutes later, Gallese had to throw out an arm to deny an Aidan Morris shot from distance that had a lot of power behind it. The Crew kept coming and Hernandez fired wide in the 41st minute.
That was the last decent look of the first half and the teams went into the break scoreless, but Columbus had to be the more confident team after the opening 45 minutes.
The Crew dominated the first half from a statistical standpoint, finishing the opening period with the edge in possession (52.6%-47.4%), shots (9-4), shots on target (3-0), corners (3-1), and passing accuracy (91.1%-84.4%).
Pareja said the Crew didn’t throw anything at them that surprised him but his team just wasn’t sharp enough.
“When we tried to put some passes in the middle third, I thought we got caught in not being precise in the passing and not occupying the spaces,” Pareja said.
If the Crew had the better of the play in the first half, that only intensified after halftime. The Lions struggled to get out of their own half and frequently lost control of the ball when they did get forward.
Jansson did well to win a vital challenge in the first minute after the restart but conceded a corner in doing so.
Orlando’s next chance came in the 48th minute when a ball fell for Thorhallsson but he fired his shot a few feet wide.
Rossi got into a dangerous spot in the 58th minute but hit his shot softly at Gallese for an easy save. Ten minutes later, Rossi was left alone in space about 25 yards out but hit his shot off target.
Jansson did well to block a Hernandez effort in the 73rd minute as the Crew kept coming.
four minutes later, the Lions had the ball forward but turned it over and the Crew sent a long ball over the top that changed the game. Schlegel may have had help from Jansson behind him as he was tracking Rossi, but he may not have known it. Concerned he’d be beaten for pace, the Argentine grabbed the Crew forward and was shown his second yellow card.
Schlegel was sent off, joining Pereyra (2020) as Orlando City players to be ejected from the conference semifinals. Antonio Carlos came off the bench as Angulo was sacrificed from the attack.
“I think it was a good foul. It was one that had to happen,” Torres said. “Obviously, it was an expulsion, but even when we had 11 players it was tough. We weren’t able to get on top of them. And so, going into the next phase of the game with 10, we knew that it was going to be even tougher and that every player was going to have to do double the running and double the effort. We just weren’t able to get it, but it’s what happens in these games.”
“After the red card I thought the boys found ways just to fight,” Pareja said. “It was probably better, I would say. Unorganized, but better in terms of possibilities, and I have big respect for that.”
Hernandez went for an audacious bicycle kick in the 82nd minute but hit it over the bar. The Lions were packed deeply into their end looking to see out normal time and hoping to find something on the counterattack.
Martin Ojeda had a chance to end the game in the sixth minute of stoppage time when Torres intercepted a wayward pass out of the back and fed the winger down the left side. Ojeda took the ball down the left and fired a shot just inches wide of the right post. It would almost certainly have lifted the Lions to an improbable victory if he could have steered it on target.
The crew held lopsided advantages in possession (59.1%-40.9%), shots (17-7), shots on target (4-0), corners (7-2), and passing accuracy (90.5%-81.9%), but the game went into 30 minutes of extra time.
Wilfried Nancy, who hadn’t subbed during normal time, sent Ramirez on for Matan to start the extra session. It paid dividends early in extra time. Freemon allowed play to continue after it appeared that Thorhallsson had been fouled near midfield, and then again after Araujo dribbled the ball out of the box and appeared to get clipped from behind. However, neither was callled and the ensuing cross in was knocked down by Gallese, but he hit it right to a charging Ramirez, who got a piece to bundle in for the opener in the 93rd minute.
Surprisingly, Orlando City, down a man and a goal in extra time, started generating scoring chances. The first of those came in the 100th minute. Substitute Junior Urso carved through the Columbus midfield and fed a pass in behind for fellow sub Kyle Smith. The fullback fired a shot on target but Schulte was able to make a big save.
Ojeda nearly had Ramiro Enrique in behind in the 103rd minute but the pass was a tad heavy and Schulte got there first.
That was the last good look of the first 15 minutes and the Crew led 1-0 at the extra time intermission.
Enrique nearly tied the game in the 106th minute when he again got in but Schulte made another vital save. Two minutes later, Gallese kept the game at 1-0 with a big stop at the other end.
Seconds later came maybe the best chance of all. Ojeda sent in a fantastic cross from the leftthat found Enrique at the near post. His header was on frame but Schulte stuck out a leg and it hit his foot for another big save.
Columbus put the match away in the 118th minute. With Gallese pushed forward as a sweeper, the Crew took possession and the ball found Hernandez, who accurately hit the target from midfield, making it 2-0 and sealing the game. Despite the overzealous MLS Twitter admin’s assertion (see embedded tweet below), it was most certainly not an incredible goal for a player of that caliber with no goalkeeper in the net. It was quite credible but oh well.
It was the third game this season that Orlando City fell behind multiple goals to Columbus but this time there were no late-game heroics to pull it back.
Columbus dominated the stat sheet, finishing with more possession (56.7%-43.3%), shots (20-13), shots on target (7-3), corners (7-6), and passing accuracy (89.5%-81.5%).
Pareja lauded his team’s effort after the match, citing the team finally being able to create some chances to win late in normal time and to equalize once Columbus took the lead.
“That heart probably needed a better reward because they had a few chances where we could equalize the game. It seems like our heart was bigger in those difficult moments but it was not enough.”
“I’m really proud of this team, to be the captain of this team,” Pereyra said. “It was such an honor for me this year. I already thanked the guys because the effort that they made today and during the whole season. They made me and Orlando City fans believe that we could fight for winning things. Today’s the end of this dream, but the effort and the way these dreams made a thing this year was great.”
That’s a wrap on Orlando City’s 2023 season, folks. It was a good one, but the Lions will be left wondering what might have been had Ojeda’s shot in stoppage time had gone in.