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Orlando City stumbles in 2-1 loss to Houston Dynamo, loses ground in playoff race

Despite an early header from Dom Dwyer, Orlando City fell to a quick succession of goals to sink lower in the final push for the playoffs.

Orlando City took an early lead in Houston, but stumbled in the second half to drop a 2-1 loss to the Dynamo, sinking the team further below the playoff cutoff line. 

The Lions (9-14-9, 36) immediately caught hold of the pace of the game with an early off a dangerous free kick in the sixth minute just outside the Houston (11-16-4, 37) box.

Mauricio Pereyra lofted the free kick into the box, where the ball curled directly to the head of Dom Dwyer. The striker powered the ball into the net, taking the lead in only the sixth minute of the match.

“It was great to get the early goal,” coach James O’Connor said. “It gave us a bit of confidence. The first half there were instances where we could be pleased with some of the play. We went to the wide areas and we managed a lot of the defensive responsibility really well.”

The Lions celebrated the early goal jubilantly — Lamine Sané ducked onto a knee to pretend to polish Dwyer’s head as Nani and Robin Jansson stood by with their arms folded behind their back in mock solemnity. It was the fifth straight goal that Dwyer had scored with his head as well as the striker breaks through with back-to-back scoring games after an 11-game drought.

Dwyer’s renewed confidence was on display throughout the night, as he rocketed off a long shot from just outside the box later in the half that forced Houston keeper Joe Willis to make a diving save. The striker took four shots on the night, placing three on frame.

“He took his goal very well,” coach James O’Connor said. “He had a couple of other half-chances, a great strike from distance first half. He’ll be pleased to score off of back-to-back games.”

The early goal also reflected the efficiency that Pereyra brings for for Orlando City in set piece situations, threading dangerous balls off both free and corner kicks alike. The assist marked the designated player’s second in only four appearances with the Lions.

After taking the early lead, the pace of play ground down to a sluggish pace for both teams. Although play opened up with coast-to-coast transition drives for both sides, sloppy passing broke up scoring opportunities for the Lions. The team weathered a close chance in the 13th minute, when a corner kick bounced past keeper Brian Rowe across the open face of the goal but went untouched.

In the second half, the Dynamo began to turn up the heat in transition, disrupting the ability of Orlando City to maintain possession through the midfield. On an oppressive night in Houston — which reported 80 percent humidity during the game following a tropical storm earlier in the week — the health of the two playmakers of the midfield made the difference for Orlando City.

Both Higuita and Pereyra were forced to exit the game in the 64th minute, taking a notable amount of both pace and passing efficiency with them. Higuita gestured for O’Connor to pull him due to an adductor tweak that had pained him at the half; Pereyra was simply beginning to lag as he continues to work to full-game fitness. The moment served as a turning point, as the Dynamo began to launch an intense attack on the Orlando City backline, probing through the box.

“At that point, it was very obvious that we were trying to just manage the game,” O’Connor said. “When Mauricio was on the field, we had a good shape in regards to keeping the ball. When the two changes had to be made, the momentum of the game can be affected. I felt as if with that, it definitely had a psychological impact on the game for us.”

In the 70th minute, the Dynamo finally broke through, lofting a cross to the back post for Alberth Elis to head straight into the net. Three minutes later, Christian Ramirez tore through the box to hammer home another back post strike, and the Dynamo took command of the lead.

From there, Orlando City deflated on the attack, beginning to play desperate balls in for Nani and Dwyer to attempt to break even again. Although the team threaded together several dangerous possessions — with both Carlos Ascues and Ruan slamming consecutive shots on frame in the same play — the Lions couldn’t settle offensively to launch a sustained attack for an equalizing shot.

“We need to be tougher,” O’Connor said. “When you concede a goal, there has to be a reaction. It was very much a case of too many of us were looking at it thinking that the bubble burst. The reaction mentality needed to be stronger, needed to be tougher. It took us about ten minutes to process the fact that we conceded two quick goals.”

With the loss, the team now sits five points below the cutoff line for the postseason with only two games left to play. The Lions remain in the No. 10 spot in the conference, trailing Montreal, Chicago and New England. The team isn’t entirely eliminated from the playoffs — FiveThirtyEight places the Lions’ odds at 4% to make the postseason — but the margin of error is nonexistent for the team as it enters the final two games of the season.

Orlando City will head to Cincinnati next weekend to look to secure a vital road win to remain in the conversation for the playoffs.

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