ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City refused to back down against league leading LAFC squad, earning a 2-2 draw at home Saturday night.
For a moment early in the match, the air left Exploria Stadium. LAFC (15-5-6) attacked early just as expected, and after 12 minutes of constant pressure, the league leaders scored. A deflected ball gave Adrien Pérez a chance from close range, his shot pin-balling off of several players before hitting the back of the net.
But Orlando City (10-13-8) had a quick answer that came from the Lions’ captain. Nani secured a pass from Cristian Higuita directly off the restart and stormed headfirst toward the goal. Going one-on-one with LAFC’s Tyler Miller, Nani chipped the ball in an arc directly over the goalkeeper’s head, sending it bouncing into the net.
The announced crowd of 22,371 fans immediately roared. It was the first time this season the Lions were able to immediately counter a surrendered goal, leveling the game in less than a minute.
“Our mentality was just to win,” Higuita said. “After you get scored on, you just put the ball at the half and keep playing. Obviously, we are sad tonight, but we are also happy because of how we played against the best team in the league.”
Orlando City coach James O’Connor said the key for his team was to not feel intimidated by the notoriety of LAFC, which has blazed through MLS opponents all season. As Nani shook his fist and was embraced by his teammates following his goal, he sent a message to the team — the Lions had nothing to fear.
“When you look at the reaction to the goal, it’s testament to the players,” O’Connor said. “There was no period where you felt as if they were intimidated. I think it’s just a shame for the guys. They worked incredibly hard tonight.”
Orlando City took that to heart, continuing to press high against LAFC despite the risk of streaky flank players Adama Diomande and Diego Rossi. After several minutes of probing the backline, Orlando City strung together a series of quick passes to slice and dice the defense, with Nani feeding Ruan, who sent a bullet to Higuita deep in the box. The midfielder struck a cross and rookie Benji Michel flew onto the ball, hammering it home to give Orlando City the 2-1 lead.
Although the Lions commanded the swing of momentum, they didn’t dominate possession. LAFC held the ball for 70% of the first half and although the Lions played on-ball slightly more in the second, the visitors still finished with 63% of possession.
After Orlando City peppered several dangerous crosses — giving Santiago Patiño a point-blank shot that ricocheted off the right post — LAFC finally countered in the 78th minute. Rossi split the defense for a give-and-go, darting unchecked into the box to knock in the tying goal.
Both teams earned looks on goal throughout the rest of the half, but the Lions held on for the 2-2 draw and a much-needed point. Still, the team left the game disappointed, feeling as if three points slipped out of reach.
“I can’t describe it,” O’Connor said. “It’s so far past disappointment, I can’t even begin to tell you. I thought our performance was excellent. When you look at how good LAFC are, you look at how we managed the game and you look at the problems we caused them, on another night we would have won the game.”
O’Connor criticized the officials for disallowing a goal in the 56th minute, when Uri Rosell slammed in a deflected ball that would have tipped the game to a win for Orlando City. As the supporters prematurely set off several canisters of purple smoke, the referee waved the goal off, pointing to a collision in the box between Michel and Miller.
Later in the match, Miller appeared to stumble out of the box while holding the ball. The crowd loosed a deafening roar of boos on the crowd as O’Connor yelled at the referee from the sideline, gesturing at the replay on the board.
“When the officials go back and have a look at it, I think they’ll be disappointed with their performance,” O’Connor said. “I’m gonna keep control and I’ll let [the referees] answer the question, but when you see how the guys fought, you come away with immense pride for the players and the whole football club.”
— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) September 8, 2019
Nani and Higuita both picked up yellow cards in the first half, while LAFC defender Eddie Segura was forced to leave the pitch for several minutes with a bloody nose. Yellow cards kept coming in the second half, as Blessing picked up one for LAFC and Uri Rosell earned another for Orlando City.
The Lions were bolstered by the return to form for Higuita, who had not played a game at Exploria Stadium since June 1, an absence that stretched 14 weeks. Although he only earned an assist on the second goal, the midfielder directly impacted both goal-scoring plays.
The addition of defender Ruan — who rejoined the starting lineup after being sidelined for weeks with a hamstring injury — added an extra burst of speed as the team looked to match the blazing pace of LAFC. Ruan tore up the Los Angeles midfield, splitting defenders and feeding balls into space to provide both disruption and service for the Lions.
“To be honest, I’m not at my 100% yet,” Ruan said. “Everything that I showed on the field tonight was how much of a warrior and fighter that I am.”
With the tie, Orlando City held onto its No. 9 spot in the Eastern Conference, edging one point closer to Montreal.
The Lions’ next match is at home Sept. 14 against New England, the team that currently holds the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.