ORLANDO, FL – Orlando City SC (11-3-8, 41 points) overcame a controversial call the left them down one man to defeat the Columbus Crew (11-6-5, 38 points) 2-1 at Exploria Stadium on Wednesday night. With the win, the Lions clinch a top four playoff spot in the MLS standings and will host their first ever playoff game in Orlando.
The game was a thriller, with goals by Chris Mueller and Benji Michel for Orlando, and a goal by Harrison Afful for Columbus. There were two VAR’s on plays, one resulting in a mystery red card called on Nani that changed the game into an emotional match.
“First of all, I think the first half was very good.” Said Orlando Head Coach Oscar Pareja “One of the best we have had and the volume that we had and the creativity and the connections we were looking for and it was very consistent during the whole half with six or seven chances that we had. The desire to impose our game against a very good team, it was remarkable. The second half, we knew Columbus was going to come for the reactions, normally, and we found this play with Nani where obviously we disagree, totally. “
Orlando was playing strong ball against the Crew, who came out of the box with high energy and aggressive defense. Orlando took 10 shots in the first half, 6 from outside of the box, with more than one near miss. There was a fear that these near misses might come back to haunt the Lions later in the match.
Orlando managed to keep superstar Gyasi Zardes at bay, with barely a mention of his name during game commentary.
Orlando’s defense flowed well with Mauricio Perayra back in the center, directing traffic.
A Pareyra pass connected with Mueller on the right side of the box in the 27th minute, and Mueller sent it in to the far corner for the games opening goal.
Orlando moved to strike again in the 30th minute, when there was a scramble for the ball in the Columbus box causing Crew goalie Eloy Room to make a double save buy diving to kick away a shot, then having to scramble back on his feel to tap away another Orlando show on the opposite. It was very close to being a 2-0 score for the Lions.
The big controversy came in the 51st minute of the match. Orlando’s Nani made a sliding challenge on Columbus’ Artur, his cleat going into his ankle. Nani was issued a yellow card, but after a video review, Nani was issued a red card, ejecting him from the match as well as the next match.
The stadium exploded with outrage, with Lions players including Junior Urso having to be held back as they argued with referee Ramy Touchan. Nani left the field with tears of frustration.
Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja spoke about the call in both English and Spanish.
“I want to be bold in this, because I reviewed the play,” Pareja said. “I think we all make mistakes. We become emotional, and it’s not an easy job for referees. … But we reviewed it. Nothing happened. We all make mistakes, and we assume this is part of the game. But what happened is that the game gave us the possibility to be fair and we had to be fair. It was not a red card.”
Nani’s removal from play left Orlando to play with 10.
Columbus water no time in taking advantage of the situation by scoring in the 56th minute. Harrison Afful made it 1-1 with a left-footed rocket that fizzed past Pedro Gallese.
Coming back out for the second half, Columbus tried to continue to take advantage of their advantage, with 246 passes and an advantage on possession time.
Orlando held strong, fighting off all of Columbus’ challenges. The crew were fairly ineffective against the Lions.
Orlando got the boss that they needed when Mauricio slid a ball ahead to substitute Benji Michel. Though Michel had two Crew players on his back, he managed to muscle past them and slide an incredible shot past the defender and in between the legs of Room for the winning score. It was Benji’s fifth goal of the calendar year.
The crowd was stunned, as was Michel, who performed his now patented areal backflip in celebration.
Mauricio Pereyra passed Mueller for the team lead in assists in the match, registering his seventh and eighth of the year, respectively.
Orlando finishes the regular season with a home match against Nashville on November 8th at 3:30 pm.