ORLANDO, Fla. — It was a sleepy night in Orlando on Saturday, but striker Benji Michel woke up the crowd at Exploria Stadium with minutes to spare.
For more than 80 minutes, Orlando City struggled to create anything on offense against Columbus Crew SC, posting three total shots, zero on frame, and only one corner kick.
Michel spent the night flying up and down the flanks, outpacing defenders but unable to finish. In the 84th minute, that speed finally paid off as Ruan sprinted up the right flank and sent a cross into the box where Michel slammed it home with his first touch.
The goal was the team’s only shot on frame all game, but it was enough to secure a 1-0 victory over Columbus. It also marked Michel’s first goal in MLS play after he scored his first professional goal in the Open Cup Round of 16.
“I saw Ruan and I knew I had to get there right away,” Michel said. “It was a dream come true. What a crazy moment. I don’t know what was going through my mind, it was just so unreal.”
In the first half, Orlando City struggled to create any viable chances. The only shot taken by Orlando in the first 45 minutes of play came from Kamal Miller, who lined up and ripped a shot from long distance, but the ball curled to the left and flew just a few feet wide of the goal.
Although the team found several openings in transition — bolstered by the speed of Michel and Ruan, who blazed past defenders — the Lions couldn’t convert the opportunities into shots on frame.
The team’s lack of creativity came in part from the absence of star forward Nani, who was forced to sit out the game due to a bout of food poisoning suffered on Friday. The striker leads the team in goals (8) and assists (7) and had previously played in nine consecutive games for the Lions.
Jul 13, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando City SC forward Benji Michel (19), defender Ruan (2), goalkeeper Brian Rowe (23) and teammates celebrate as they beat the Columbus Crew SC during the second half at Exploria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Nani’s absence came at the end of a grueling week in which the team played three games over the course of seven days. Many of the starters of Saturday’s game were fresh off a 120-minute Open Cup match only three days before.
“We looked very tired, which we expected,” coach James O’Connor said. ” We needed to have some grit. I thought the mentality of the players was excellent. We were only going to get a couple chances, so we needed to be really clinical.”
Meanwhile, as Columbus commanded possession throughout the first half, the crossbar became Orlando City’s best friend. Two of the Crew’s six shots of the half deflected off the crossbar, earning deep gasps from the supporters section.
As Columbus continued to command extended time of possession in the second half, Orlando City continued to create most of its opportunities on goal in transition. Yet despite a series of sprints on goal, the team struggled to find anything in the box. The Lions didn’t even take a corner kick until the 73rd minute of play.
Although Orlando City fumbled in finishing in the final third, Columbus faced the same offensive challenges, keeping both teams locked in a 0-0 draw. Frustration mounted as both teams failed to find their rhythm on offense. Orlando City picked up four yellow cards by the final whistle and striker Dom Dwyer earned a red card ejection in stoppage after throwing an elbow.
Over the last week, Orlando City ceded last-minute goals in its last two games against New York City FC and Philadelphia. Against Columbus, the team refused to repeat its mistake. After taking the late lead, the Lions held onto their one-goal lead to secure three points and a hard-fought victory at home.
“Columbus brought everything at the end,” Miller said. “You could just tell in everyone’s demeanor and attitude and tone of voice. … We were not going to let that happen tonight, especially in front of our fans who supported us all the way. We owed that to them to not let it slip.”
The game moved Orlando City up a spot in the Eastern Conference rankings, situated just one point below the cutoff line with 25 points. The Lions now look to overtake Toronto FC, which defended its spot ahead of Orlando in the rankings with a 2-0 win over Montreal on Saturday.
With a playoff spot within tangible reach, the team is aware that its margin of error is slim.
“We’re a really good team,” Michel said. “I feel like we should be in a playoffs spot right now. A lot of games that we’ve played could have ended better in our way. We’re going to keep working until we get to where we have to be, which is in a playoffs spot.”