TORONTO — Rookie Benji Michel delivered a shot in the arm to a sluggish Orlando City attack on the road in Toronto, bolting off the bench in the second half and lifting the Lions to a 1-1 draw.
Entering the game, coach James O’Connor spoke to the importance of his team’s bench, emphasizing help from players outside the starting XI would be critical during the final stretch of the season. Michel fulfilled that expectation, entering in the 67th minute and scoring less than two minutes later.
The play built from Dom Dwyer, who intercepted a pass at midfield and charged forward immediately. Dwyer dumped the ball to Chris Mueller, who in turn switched the field and played the ball into space. Michel burst onto the wide open back side, drove with one touch into the box, then slotted the ball home to stun the crowd at BMO Field and give the Lions a 1-0 advantage.
“The guys on the bench were saying, ‘Benji, go in and be as dangerous as possible,'” Michel said. “I felt like when I came in, I had to be a spark for the team and bring energy.”
Michel’s goal lit a spark for Orlando City after a sluggish start in the final third. Despite extended periods of possession on both sides of the ball, neither team was able to convert opportunities into meaningful shots in the first half. By the end of the first 45 minutes of play, Orlando City had taken three shots and Toronto had taken four. The home team placed only one of those shots on frame, while the Lions were unable to place a single on target.
For Orlando City, the game reflected another instance of struggling to capitalize on scoring opportunities.
“I felt like we were going to catch them on transition,” O’Connor said. “I think there was a number of times where we had a couple of chances and we could’ve caught them again. We’re just a little disappointed not to get the three points.”
Although the Orlando City attack continued to struggle with its timing and chemistry, Toronto struggled for a different reason — the Lions’ defensive pressure. TFC set the tone early in the game, whipping in a series of dangerous crosses to challenge the backline. But despite the home team’s ability to play balls with pace into the box, the defense locked down on deflecting these balls back upfield, allowing only two corners and forcing Orlando City keeper Brian Rowe to make only one save in the first half.
As the second half wore on, Toronto began to ratchet up the heat, finding more striking opportunities in Orlando territory. A close call in the 59th minute sent most of the crowd at BMO Field to its feet, as a strike from Tsubasa Endoh flew only inches over the crossbar, bouncing deceptively into the top of the netting. Only four minutes later, Pozuelo rifled off a shot from the top corner of the box that ricocheted off the post, only inches away from the goal.
Toronto took 14 shots in the second half, placing four on frame. Rowe notched four saves by the final whistle, punching away several point-blank shots on frame to keep Orlando City alive.
“Toronto is always a hard place to come and play and especially to get a result,” said defender Kamal Miller, a Toronto area native. “Their fans really brought them to life, especially in the second half, but I think we defended well [and] held our own.”
With momentum in their favor after Michel’s goal, however, a costly Lions foul committed in the 75th minute gave Toronto an equalizing opportunity. After Michel tackled an attacker just outside the box, Toronto earned a free kick. The Orlando City backline deflected the initial shot off the kick, but the ricocheting ball landed in a chaotic mess of players at the feet of Patrick Mullins, who drilled it home to level the score 1-1.
Although Toronto continued to apply relentless attacking pressure during the last stretch of the game, Orlando City fended the home team off to secure a draw on the road. Despite taking away a positive result, however, the team felt disappointed letting the opportunity to secure three points slip away.
“I think before this game, if you’d told us we could steal a point from up here, we would’ve taken it,” Rowe said. “Given the game, being up 1-0 and pushing towards the end of the game, it’s disappointing now. But we stay connected with the other [teams] in the playoff hunt and we put ourselves in a good position moving forward.”
The Lions remain in ninth place on the Eastern Conference table, three points behind eighth-place Toronto and seventh-place Montreal.
Orlando City will return home to host Sporting Kansas City at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Exploria Stadium.