Orlando players Dom Dwyer (14), Will Johnson (4), and Nani (17) celebrate with Tesho Akindele (13) after Akindele scored the tying goal during the New York City Football Club at Orlando City Soccer MLS match at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday, March 2, 2019. The game ended in a 2-2 tie. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City designated players know how to make an entrance.
After sitting the entire first half, former Manchester United winger Nani and star striker Dom Dwyer subbed on in the 69th minute and made an immediate impact. The Lions were down 2-1 and looking to spark a comeback when Orlando City’s two stars linked up to help the Lions salvage a point Saturday afternoon.
Nani found Dwyer running free into the penalty area and Dwyer delivered the ball — with two NYCFC defenders closing in — to new forward Tesho Akindele for the match-tying score in the 75th minute. The Lions earned a 2-2 draw in their season opener in front of an announced crowd of 25,527.
Akindele came off with a cramp after scoring.
“It was kind of weird,” Akindele said. “I was trying to be really happy and celebrate, but I couldn’t. So, next time, maybe I’ll have a better celebration. I don’t know.”
He said Nani and Dwyer’s impact was tremendous.
“I think one Nani’s first touches was the pass to send Dom through,” Akindele said. “One of Dom’s first touches was an assist. That just shows the quality they bring and the depth we have up top.”
Coach James O’Connor said he didn’t envision Dwyer and Nani playing the minutes they did. Dwyer didn’t play in any of the team’s preseason matches, O’Connor said, and Nani only recently returned to training after getting paperwork sorted.
O’Connor said it’ll “take a bit of time” for the two DPs to be ready to start.
“Dom has not had really had any game minutes at all through preseason,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to have to manage Dom and also Nani. Obviously, I think in his last game, he came off after 45 minutes. We’ve had some good conversations around where they think they are, physically. They’re both experienced players, so I think when you’re speaking to them, you truly get a gauge of how they’re feeling as well and what they’re comfortable with.”
Nani said he’s close to being in the Lions’ starting XI.
“I think it’s not so far,” he said. “I think I need a very good week of training and I think I’ll be able to start.”
Proceedings in the first half closely resembled the darker parts of last season.
NYCFC opened the scoring in the 13th minute. Until that point, Orlando City had controlled the tempo of the match, but Ebenezer Ofori was left alone outside of the penalty area. He fired from distance, the ball bounced off the inside of the post and into the back of the net.
The Pigeons doubled their advantage in the 45th minute. Midfielder Alexander Ring got in behind Orlando City’s defenders and $8.5-million signee Alexandru Mitrita sent a ball through the legs of Orlando City centerback Alex De John. Ring finished the sequence and the Lions were in a hole heading into the break.
Orlando City controlled possession in the first half (62 percent to 38 percent) and created more chances (six to four), but still went into halftime down 2-0. The Lions also took eight shots, but just one of them was on target.
“I thought we were extremely unlucky to go in 2-nil down,” O’Connor said. “I think, when you look at the balance of play in the first half, we had a load of possession. We were camped in their half. We were had multiple good opportunities. I think we were all a little frustrated to go in 2-nil down. I think, when you look at the balance of play and the way the first half went, we felt as if we didn’t deserve to be 2-nil down, but we were 2-nil down.
“Like we said, you either sit and feel sorry for yourself or you get out and you keep believing and you keep pushing and you keep doing the things we’d spoken about. I think we were very unfortunate not to go on and win the game at the end.”
The Lions scored their first goal against NYCFC since 2017 thanks to a free kick from Chris Mueller in the 59th minute. Kljestan earned the free kick, but Mueller’s service sailed over everyone in the box, bounced in front of the goal and into the net to cut into NYCFC’s lead.
Mueller created five chances for the Lions.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel confident and I was proud of the way the team fought back.”
After the Akindele equalizer, Orlando City nearly had an opportunity to take the lead late in the match. Mueller sent a cross to Dwyer at the back post, and Dwyer headed the ball down in front of the goal. The ball appeared to bounce off NYCFC centerback Maxime Chanot’s arm, and referee Baldomero Toledo reviewed the play, but no penalty was called.
“The VAR recommended a review for a potential handling in the penalty area,” the refs said in a statement to reporters after the match. “After the review, the referee determined that the defender did not deliberately handle the ball.”
O’Connor said Dwyer was “adamant” it was a hand ball.
“He went over and he gave the signal for the VAR,” O’Connor said. “Once they do that, we don’t have any TV screens, we don’t get to see anything. It was just a case then, he went over, we see what the supporters see. But the players came over to get a drink and they were saying it’s a definite hand ball. I was think, ‘Great, we’ve got a penalty.’
“Of course, we didn’t. Look, it happens. It’s just one of those things. We’ll go and look back and we’ll see and see what happened.”