ORLANDO, Fla. — Boos rang out through Exploria Stadium as the final whistle of the 2019 season blew on Sunday night. Fans had begun to trickle toward the exit early in the second half as Orlando City crumpled during a 5-2 blowout loss to Chicago.
After taking an early lead and peppering the goal with 10 on-frame shots, a series of injuries and defensive miscues left the Lions with a bitter taste in their mouths as they closed out a season full of improvement on a low note.
“We had goodness knows how many chances,” Lions coach James O’Connor said. “That’s pretty indicative of how the season has gone for us. We should be leading at half time, we’re not. We should be leading before they score. The chances that we didn’t capitalize on tonight, it’s incredible. You can’t miss the volume of chances like that.”
For Orlando City, the momentum swing came in the 32nd minute when Chicago’s C.J. Sapong crashed into the back of Robin Jansson. The centerback — who has previously finished a game through bruised ribs — fell to the pitch grabbing his neck in pain. He left the game on a stretcher, offering a small wave to the supporters section as coach James O’Connor and the substitutes jogged over to offer a word of support.
The stretcher was “strictly precautionary,” according to a team official. The injury, however, cast a pall over the rest of the half for the Lions, fully decimating the team’s backline on the way to a blowout loss.
Kyle Smith had already shifted into the centerback position to fill the role of Lamine Sané, who was forced to sit out the game due to illness. Shane O’Neill entered to fill in for Jansson. The match marked the first time in 12 games Jansson and Sané hadn’t played as the core of the team’s defense.
“For Robin to get such a worrying hit like that, it obviously affected the way we defended,” O’Connor said. “Kyle did such a great job at Portland, and when he was alongside Robin, he looked very composed. I think it was the shock of Robin going off initially, and [then] it was just the reaction to the goals going in.”
It didn’t take long for their absence to make an impact in the second half. Before the injury, the two teams had already gone back and forth in the first half for a level 1-1 score. Benji Michel burst free in the fifth minute, taking a touch too hard as he flew past the keeper before cutting it back for Akindele to ricochet off the right post and the keeper for a goal.
Sapong flew forward for the equalizer barely 10 minutes later, getting his foot on a cross and sending it into Smith’s foot and into the netting. The Lions’ failure to convert early in the game quickly translated into the blowout loss.
In the first half alone, Orlando City rifled six of its seven shots on frame, but the Lions only converted one of them into a goal. Michel and Pereyra both fired shots on frame in the opening minute and Akindele muffed a one-on-one with a keeper off a through ball from Pereyra. The half reflected the Lions’ frustrating lack of finishing quality despite consistent chance creation all season.
“In the last couple of games, we had the chance to kill, to put our opponent down and that chance [became] the opposite,” Orlando City captain Nani said. “In football, we say if you don’t score, you will concede. That’s happened with us the last couple of games. Football is like that. You must take your chances.”
Sapong struck again in the 62nd minute, tapping in a shot unmarked in the box to take the lead. A minute later, Aleksandar Katai danced around Kamal Miller to launch a shot past Rowe. Przemyslaw Frankowski added a fourth, backheeling a ball into the net after Smith slipped in man coverage.
The three-goal scoring spree happened within a period of seven minutes.
“Mentally, when you go 2-1 down, you need to actually keep a five minute spell once you concede to react a little bit tougher than we did,” O’Connor said. “That [first] one went in and it was almost like we were shell shocked by it.”
Sacha Kljestan slipped a ball to Michel behind the backline, and the rookie rocketed home his fifth goal of the season to cut the lead to 4-2 goals. The goal gave a short reprieve to the Lions, but it didn’t last long as the backline continued to get hammered.
In the 77th minute, Ruan took a hit to the head that knocked him limp for several seconds. Nani called the trainers over in a panic when he saw the defender immobile on the field, but Ruan was on his feet in minutes, wagging a finger at the sidelines as he was forced to leave the game.
With the backline in disarray, Frankowski punched in a fifth goal in the 87th minute to complete the rout. After dancing around the playoff line for most of the summer, the Lions’ final loss marked its eighth straight winless match, capping a season with a mix of improvement and disappointment.
“God almighty, it’s impossible to tell you the frustration,” O’Connor said. “The hardest part is to have to go to the supporters and be a man and front up and thank them. I’ve tried to do that after every game. When you look at what they’ve given us every game throughout the year — we’ve tried and tried and worked, but we just weren’t able to get there.”