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Orlando City rally falls short, Lions lose 2-1 to D.C. United

D.C. United midfielder Junior Moreno (5) and Orlando City SC forward Dom Dwyer (14) fight to control the ball Sunday night at Orlando City Stadium. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

ORLANDO — Orlando City fell behind in the first half and – despite a furious rally during the final 45 minutes – couldn’t find an equalizer, falling 2-1 to D.C. United in Orlando City Stadium Sunday in front of an announced crowd of 22,481.

Coach James O’Connor commended the second-half performance of his team, but had fiery comments for the officials after the match. 

After the D.C. scored early, superstar Wayne Rooney doubled United’s advantage in the 30th minute, curling in a free kick from the left side of the penalty area. Rooney earned the free kick after a controversial foul was called on Orlando City striker Dom Dwyer, despite there being minimal, if any, contact.

“Dwyer was called for carelessly attempting to kick an opponent and as such a direct free kick was awarded,” officials said after the match. 

The Lions had questions for referee Armando Villarreal after Rooney’s goal. D.C. United centerback Frédéric Brillant collided with Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe on the play. The Lions– star winger Nani in particular – pleaded with the referee for video review, but Villarreal opted not to go to the monitor, despite a delay in play. 

O’Connor was livid when addressing reporters after the match, evening bringing up past instances during which controversial calls didn’t go the Lions’ way.

“The foul on Brian Rowe was so obvious,” he said. “It goes to VAR, everybody can see it. For some reason we don’t… what’s the point in having VAR? He didn’t even go and look at it. Yet, everyone can see that it’s a foul. For us, we’ve had it, since I’ve been here, we’ve had it in game after game.

“Columbus away last year. D.C had an incident. New York at the start of this year. How many more times? The players go out and give an incredible second-half performance. Absolutely incredible, and yet, we come off and we lose the game, again, through no fault of our own. How many more times?”

Raising his voice, he added, “For me, when I look at it, it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got VAR, but why bother?’ They don’t even look. And you look at it, the whole stadium can see. It’s like, it’s mind-boggling stuff.” 

Dwyer called the ref’s decision “unbelievable.” 

“After all the hard work we put in tonight, it’s sad that we have to look back and that’s one of the turning points,” Dwyer said. “You know, I think, I thought maybe having VAR would help the referees, but it seems to be doing the opposite. They’re killing us at the moment.” 

Dwyer said the players are still upbeat after their performance on Sunday, calling the team’s play “fantastic.” 

O’Connor said Orlando City’s players and supporters “didn’t deserve” what happened on Sunday. 

“It’s disheartening for the players,” he said. “The players are totally dejected, because this isn’t the first time. Genuinely, I’ve tried to respect — it’s difficult and all the rest of it — and I’ve done my utmost to try to be understanding and try to manage it, but it’s now at a stage where something like that, I mean, I’m sure when the referee sees it he’s going to… question his decision, shall we say.” 

For the third time in three home matches this season, the Lions (1-2-2, 5 points) were trailing by two goals during the first half.

D.C. United opened the scoring in the sixth minute. United was awarded a free kick from the right side of the penalty area after Orlando City centerback Robin Jansson was whistled for a hand ball. D.C. superstar Wayne Rooney sent in the free kick and it was headed home by centerback Steven Birnbaum.

“When you look at the first set piece, we’ve fallen asleep on the set piece,” O’Connor said. 

Orlando City’s best chance of the first half came in the eighth minute of the match. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan found Dwyer in the penalty area and Dwyer sent in a cross for Nani, who sent his header from close range high. The Lions had three shots on goal in the first half, but all three were comfortable saves for D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid.

The Lions got a goal back in the 63rd minute. Winger Chris Mueller, who came on as a sub in the 59th minute along with midfielder Sebas Méndez, sent in a cross for Dwyer, who cut into United’s lead with a header.

Orlando City played with some extra fire after that goal. Coach James O’Connor brought on another attacking sub in Homegrown forward Benji Michel, who came on for Nani, but the Lions couldn’t find an equalizer. Mueller almost leveled the match in the first minute of second half stoppage time, but his header dinged off the post. Robin Jansson also had a decent look in the 89th minute, but sent his shot wide. 

The Lions finished the match with 16 shots, five of which were on target. Orlando City also controlled 54.3 percent of the possession. 

Orlando City hosts the Colorado Rapids on Saturday.

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