ORLANDO — At long last, Orlando City’s supporters could truly celebrate.
And Orlando City’s players could breathe again.
It doesn’t erase the weeks of futility prior, but it was enough to put smiles on the faces of Lions players battling through Orlando City’s worst MLS season.
Sunday, in front of an announced crowd of 23,642 in Orlando City Stadium, the Lions got a win. It was their first win since a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on July 14 and only the second of head coach James O’Connor’s short tenure with the team.
Orlando City (8-21-4, 28 points) defeated the Columbus Crew 2-1 thanks to a penalty kick from midfielder Sacha Kljestan in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time.
O’Connor said the performance is what he’s been looking for when he’s spoken about commitment and intensity from the team.
“I think that would be the expected behavior that I’m speaking about,” O’Connor said after the match. “That level of commitment. I think, for a lot of the guys, I think it’s been tough. I make very high demands and I have very high expectations of myself, first and foremost, so when you go through what we’ve gone through, I look internally first.
“I look at what I should have done and what I could have done. My messaging. And then I want to make sure there’s good understanding of what we’re trying to do.”
He added Sunday’s match was a “snippet” of what he wants to see from Orlando City next season.
“Genuinely, I think when you’re on a run like that, we’ll speak about relief, but you can’t put into words, really, if I’m being honest,” O’Connor said regarding winning after going three months without a victory. “It’s pleasing to get that, but again, we’re looking at next year and we’re thinking… that level of commitment is what’s needed for next year.”
The first half of the match was a chippy affair.
The two sides combined for 11 fouls, though the match clearly turned in the 33rd minute after Columbus Crew centerback Jonathan Mensah tried won in the ball in the air over striker Dom Dwyer. Afful appear to swing his elbow back and hit Dwyer in the face. Mensah was booked, but referee Kevin Stott did not watch a video replay of the sequence.
Minutes later – after Dwyer was looked at by trainers for a cut underneath his eye – Dwyer ran into Mensah, sending Mensah to the ground away from the ball. Dwyer was booked, and the half only got more heated from there, though Mensah and Dwyer were the only two played booked in the first half.
The second half delivered the goals.
Columbus opened the scoring in the 54th minute thanks to Federico Higuaín. He sent a free kick from outside the penalty area into the back of the net to put Orlando City down 1-0.
The Lions found their equalizer minutes later. Midfielder Will Johnson tried to head the ball into the penalty area and Crew centerback Gastón Sauro struck the ball with his hand. The Lions were awarded a penalty kick, and midfielder Yoshimar Yotún converted it with a cheeky Panenka to level the match at a goal apiece.
Orlando City spent most of the rest of the match desperately hunting for a match winner. In the end, it came down to rookie Chris Mueller, who was subbed on in the 72nd minute. He got the ball on the right side of the penalty area and tried to work his way toward the goal but was tripped up by Wil Trapp.
The ref blew his whistle and awarded a penalty, which was slotted home by Kljestan. Orlando City ended the match with the advantage in shots (16-8) and shots on target (7-4).
“It was nice to see the fans be happy for once,” Kljestan said.
“It still wasn’t perfect. Let’s be honest, we gave up the first goal for the 20-somethingth time this season, which is a horrible statistic, but the fight from the guys was there. I think we pushed and we pushed and we pushed. We tried. We had them pinned back a few times. They had their chances on the break and [goalkeeper] Adam [Grinwis] made a couple of decent saves.
“Not perfect, but overall, a decent performance with a lot of good effort from most guys on the field.”
Orlando City ends its season on the road with a match against the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 28.