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After further review, Orlando City robbed of season-opening victory

Orlando players Dom Dwyer (14), Will Johnson (4), and Nani (17) celebrate with Tesho Akindele (13) after Akindele scored the tying goal during the New York City Football Club at Orlando City Soccer MLS match at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday, March 2, 2019. The game ended in a 2-2 tie. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. — In the standings and in the record books, it will go down as a 2-2 season-opening draw with NYCFC, but in the hearts and minds of Orlando City’s players, coaches and fans it will go down as a 2-2 victory.

No, not a moral victory, although it would certainly qualify as that as well. It was an actual victory; a victory stolen away by an official who decided an obvious hand ball late in the match was not worthy of a penalty even though it was reviewed on video replay.

The play in question came when City’s Chris Mueller fired a precision pass to star striker Dom Dwyer at the back post, and Dwyer headed the ball downward in front of the goal. The ball caromed off NYCFC centerback Maxime Chanot’s arm, but referee Baldomero Toledo reviewed the play and decided no penalty was warranted.

“The VAR [Video Assistant Referee] recommended a review for a potential handling in the penalty area,” the officiating crew said in a statement to reporters. “After the review, the referee determined that the defender did not deliberately handle the ball.”

Really?

Seriously?

Chanot didn’t “deliberately” block Dwyer’s potential game-winning header?

Are you kidding me?

Does any soccer player ever make it look like he’s deliberately blocking a shot with his arm or hand?

Granted, Chanot didn’t glare at Dwyer NBA-style after blocking the shot with his arm and exclaim, “Don’t bring that weak [bleep] into my office!”

But, clearly, Chanot altered Dwyer’s shot with his arm, and that’s what should matter most.

As Dwyer walked out of the locker room, I asked him if it was a hand ball.

He was as adamant as he could possibly be.

“No question,” Dwyer said.

“No question.”

Except, of course, when you’re dealing with MLS referees.

At least the refs in the NFC Championship Game who completely missed a blatant pass-interference penalty and robbed the New Orleans Saints of a chance of going to the Super Bowl didn’t have the benefit of going to video replay. These MLS refs did — and they still blew it!

As one wise-guy member of the Orlando media cracked afterward, “Robert Kraft is now requesting MLS refs review the videotape from the massage parlor.”

“I think we were very unfortunate not to win the game at the end,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said.

“To be honest, I thought we completely outplayed them start to finish,” Lions forward Tesho Akindele said.

It’s a shame Orlando City’s players didn’t get the three points they rightfully earned, but this was still a promising start to an ultra-important season for the Lions. This is a crucial year in which everybody — coaches, players, management and fans — agrees that Orlando City must begin to show some progress.

It seems like so long ago now when Orlando City and NYCFC came into MLS together as expansion franchises and opened that fairy-tale first season in front of an earth-shaking, ground-breaking sellout crowd of 62,000 at the Citrus Bowl — a match broadcast live in America, Brazil, the United Kingdom and in more than 100 countries and 30 languages.

There was hope and hype and a feeling like Orlando was about to become the soccer capital of America back then. We all know what’s happened since: Four losing seasons in which City has gotten progressively worse while NYCFC — the Lions’ one-time expansion rivals — has become a perennial playoff team.

Orlando City management must have been horrified on Saturday when the team fell behind 2-0 in the first half and could have easily wilted and been blown out. Yes, it was only the first game, but can you imagine how dour and dreary the outlook of the fan base would be right now if City had lost 4-nil on Saturday?

Instead, O’Connor came into the locker room at halftime and told his team what they needed to hear.

“Either you feel sorry for yourself,” O’Connor said, “or you keep pushing and keep believing.”

They kept pushing … and believing … and pushing … and believing some more.

Mueller bounded in a free kick for City’s first goal in the 59th minute to make it 2-1, and 10 minutes later the announced crowd of 25,527 at the Purple Palace erupted when the team’s two stars — Dwyer and recently acquired former Manchester United winger Nani — checked into the game.

It didn’t take long for the Dwyer and Nani to make an impact. Almost immediately, Nani delivered a beautiful pass to Dwyer, who sprinted free in the penalty area and threaded a perfect ball to Akindele for the match-equalizing score in the 75th minute.

Five minutes later, Dwyer, who has an uncanny knack of being at the right place at the right time, was in front of the net again and on the verge of sending a header into the back of the net.

But the potential game-winner was blocked by the long arm of the law — those MLS refs who inexplicably refused to call a penalty.

Call it a draw if you want, but this clearly should have been an Orlando City victory.

Hands down.

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