SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Only three minutes stood between Orlando City and a spot above the MLS playoff cut line.
The team was on the verge of vaulting into sixth place in the Eastern Conference, but a Minnesota United goal in stoppage time left the Lions with a disappointing 1-1 draw.
The Loons out-possessed and out-shot Orlando City all night, leaning into the rumbling advantage of its sold-out stadium to apply relentless pressure on the Lions’ backline.
But a breakaway by Nani in the 68th minute made a huge impact for the Lions. The midfielder broke into open space and streaked up the gut of the field, shielding the ball with his body as he entered the box. Ike Opara crashed into Nani from behind, sending both players tumbling into the box as the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
Staring down the “Wonderwall” of Minnesota supporters, Nani calmly buried the penalty in the left corner of the goal, giving Orlando City the 1-0 lead with less than a third of the game left to play.
The Lions hung onto the lead, but a moment of chaos in the box in the first minute of stoppage time leveled the game. A long, arcing throw-in skimmed the head of Minnesota’s Michael Boxall, then pinballed off Orlando defender Robin Jansson. Lamine Sané lunged to knock the ball away, but Abu Dunladi was quicker, striking a shot cleanly past keeper Brian Rowe.
“It’s a really cheap goal,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said. “It feels like a loss. Our expectation is to win the game. In the 90th minute, we need to win the game. If they shoot an incredible goal, you accept it. When it’s that cheap, that’s really hard to swallow.”
Scrambling to respond with the win slipping away, Orlando launched on the offensive, sending Tesho Akindele and Mauricio Pereyra flying into the box. When a cross from Akindele rebounded off a defender’s hand, it seemed that Orlando City was headed to the penalty spot again. But VAR concluded Akindele was offside before collecting the ball, negating the call, scrubbing the penalty and the Lions’ chance at a counter.
Orlando City tried to push for one last shot, but neither squad could take a shot with less than a minute before full time was called to seal the draw.
“I’m just gutted for the guys,” Rowe said. “We came here fully expecting to get three points, and we put ourselves in a great position heading into the end of the game. It’s a point at the end of the day, but it’s not what we wanted. We definitely deserved to win.”
As a result of the Lions’ point and results elsewhere, Orlando City (9-11-7, 34 points) is in eighth place and one spot below the playoff cut line. The team is tied with Montreal in points, but the Impact have one more win that puts them above the cut line in seventh place.
From the opening whistle, the game felt slanted toward the Loons’ advantage. Minnesota (12-8-6, 42 points) seemed to break through in the eighth minute, when the Loons piled numbers into the box. Ethan Finlay slotted a through ball to Angelo Rodríguez, who hammered the ball into the net to ignite the sold-out crowd at Allianz Field.
The roar of the crowd drowned out the blow of the referee’s whistle for several seconds, but finally the ball was retrieved and the play waved off as Rodríguez was called for stepping offside. The almost-goal rattled Orlando City, somewhat calming the nervous energy that had filled the team in the opening minutes of the game.
“We started to settle down and play the way we normally play,” defender Kamal Miller said. “They came out flying behind their home crowd and they really put pressure on us. As soon as they died out from that first initial press, we weathered the storm and we really got on top of the game.”
Although Minnesota continued to apply heavy pressure throughout the game, taking 22 shots total, the Loons placed less than a third of those strikes on frame. The Lions opened up the field as the game progressed, but struggled to string together passes in the attacking third to create meaningful possessions on the offensive side of the ball.
In goal, Rowe repeatedly denied Minnesota shots as the Loons relentlessly peppered the goal throughout the game. He dove to punch away a rocketing shot by Darwin Quintero in transition in the 30th minute, stealing away the Loons’ best scoring chance of the half. In the 65th minute, Robin Lod sliced an open shot from the top of the box on frame, but Rowe again made the dive, swatting the shot away with one hand.
The momentum shifted slightly in the second half, aided by the debut of designated player Mauricio Pereyra, who entered for Robinho. For the first time in months, Orlando City fielded all three of its designated players at the same time.
Although Pereyra was at times slightly disconnected with his teammates, sending passes off target, his presence offered a new burst of life as Orlando City created more on-ball possession.
“I’m happy because I got to go today, but I’m not happy with the score,” Pereyra said. “It’s my first game, so I need to get to better know my partners and maybe I’m not in the best physical [condition], but I need these minutes to get better every game.”
Orlando City returns home to face off with Atlanta United Friday in Exploria Stadium. Kickoff is at 8 p.m. and the game will air on ESPN.