ORLANDO, Fla. — After ceding an own goal in the opening 15 minutes of play, Orlando City battled back twice to force a 3-3 draw with the New England Revolution on Saturday.
Nani scored two equalizers and assisted on a third goal to dig Orlando City (9-13-9, 36) out of two deficits. It was a must-win game, however, for the Lions during a tough playoff push. Despite the elation of defending a draw, the result was bittersweet for the team as it dropped Orlando City one spot lower in the Eastern Conference standings.
“This [was] the most important game for us,” Nani said. “That was our final. We couldn’t get the three points [and] we had the best chances to score the winning goal. Unfortunately, we couldn’t put the ball on the net. We must continue positive because … we still have games to fight.”
After starting the game with several runs dangerous cuts into the box, trouble started for Orlando City in the 13th minute when rain began to fall in heavy sheets. The messy weather spurred a period of sloppiness that led to the first goal of the night. As the cross whipped into the box, Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele stuck out his leg, sending the ball ricocheting into the backside netting just past Lions goalkeeper Brian Rowe.
Even with an early 1-0 deficit, however, Orlando City didn’t falter as Rowe waved his team back up the field to set up at midfield. After peppering several dangerous crosses into the box, Mauricio Pereyra curled a corner kick in the 22nd minute for Nani, who flicked the ball deftly with his head to level the score.
It was the second consecutive game Nani equalized for Orlando City after the team ceded an early goal. The goal also notched the first assist for Pereyra with the club in his third appearance for the Lions, sending the supporters section roaring.
“You can see [Pereyra’s] quality,” O’Connor said. “He’s got outstanding quality. It was very encouraging to see him and to see his appetite to try to get onto the ball and affect play.”
That energy didn’t last long as New England (10-10-10, 40) continued to challenge along the flanks with streaking cuts in transition. Finally, Cristian Penilla broke away in the 35th minute to challenge Ruan one-on-one in the box, chipping both the defender and Rowe for an awkward goal that left the keeper reeling after coming too far off his line. Gustavo Bou hammered a shot into the left corner from the top of the box five minutes later to further deflate the Lions.
Heading into the locker room with the weight of a two-goal deficit, Orlando City needed a quick answer to reclaim the energy in Exploria Stadium. That came almost immediately after kick off from Dom Dwyer, a player who had been desperate to score for weeks.
Nani sent an arcing cross in for Dwyer in the second minute of the half, and the striker flicked in a shot of his own to close the margin to a single goal. It was Dwyer’s first goal in 11 matches, and he raised his arms with a joyful shout as he ended his drought.
“I’m happy for him,” Sané said. “Everybody knows that a striker, when they don’t score, everybody says they’re bad, but he works very hard. Today, I think he did his best and I’m proud of him.”
The early goal kick-started a flurry of aggressive attacking runs from Orlando City, and less than 10 minutes later, Nani provided another equalizer. At the top of the box, the captain cut one way, ducked the other and then tugged the ball back to shimmy free of his defender. After cutting left, he struck a shot in the opposite direction, curling the ball into the side netting.
With the goal, Nani firmly took the lead of most single-season combined goals and assists record for Orlando City, with 12 goals and nine assists on the season, passing Kaká and Kevin Molino.
For a moment, the referee paused the game to review a possible hand-ball in the box. During that lull, Lamine Sané pumped his arms for the crowd to grow louder, and the fans eagerly complied, pounding their feet in a rhythm that sent the entire stadium rumbling.
“I’m here for that to help the team, to push them to the maximum,” Sané said. “For me, it’s natural to do that. We are all on the same page.”
After clawing back from a two-goal deficit, Orlando City brought a different edge to the match. In the 59th minute, tempers flared between when Nani and DeJuan Jones began to argue bullishly. The pair shoved each other in the chest until Dwyer and several teammates were forced to drag them apart.
The argument ended amicably — Nani and Jones ultimately shook hands, patting each other affectionately before jogging off — but it reflected the hunger of both teams. The game opened up wildly with the scored tied as both teams raced up the flanks to challenge in transition, chasing passes in open space and jockeying for every 50-50 ball.
As the half wore on, Orlando City pressured the New England backline to no avail. Keeper Matt Turner saved back-to-back point blank shots by Akindele and Dwyer in the 62nd minute, and Santiago Patiño kissed a shot off the left post in the 79th minute.
As the final whistle sounded with the two teams deadlocked at 3-3, players from both sides collapsed to the pitch in exhaustion.
“At halftime, to be in a situation like that when you’ve got a game where you need to win, to get a performance like that is tremendous character, tremendous fight, tremendous commitment,” O’Connor said. “I’m exceptionally proud of the way the guys attacked that second half. The whistle goes and everyone’s dead, on the floor, absolutely just given everything. You want to see that kind of performance. You want to see people give absolutely everything to try to get that result.”
The draw dropped the Lions to the No. 10 spot in the conference, four points away from playoff contention. The team will next take on the Houston Dynamo on the road next Saturday.