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Nani leads Orlando City to 1-1 draw with NYCFC

New York City FC midfielder James Sands (16) and Orlando City forward Nani (17) battle for the ball Saturday at Yankee Stadium. (Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports)

BRONX, N.Y. — Orlando City made a splash by signing Nani in the offseason, and so far, the former Manchester United star is paying dividends for the Lions.

He scored his fifth goal during the past four games on Saturday, leading the Lions to a 1-1 draw with New York City FC in Yankee Stadium.

It is the first time Orlando City has scored a goal at Yankee Stadium since 2017.

“The goals [are] always important when you help the team,” Nani said. “But my target, my focus, is not about the goals. Obviously, I’ll be very happy when I score. But, like I said, what gives me the opportunity to score is the way the team is playing. The way the team improved in the last games.”

Saturday’s draw means the Lions are unbeaten during the past two matches after a 1-0 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps last week. 

“We’ve been playing well,” Nani said. “We’ve been playing better. More consistent. We’ve been showing we are a better team from the beginning of the season. This creates chances for everyone. I think any player can score now. But yes, we must continue the good job and focus. Keep a good focus because we have important games in the next weeks and we want to continue to do well and win our games.”

Nani opened the scoring in the 18th minute thanks to a failed clearance by New York City FC centerback Maxime Chanot after a cross from Brazilian right back Ruan. The ball fell right to Nani’s feet in the penalty area and Nani didn’t bother taking a touch before beating NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson to the far post.

The Portuguese international star broke out a backflip in celebration of his goal – his first flip with Orlando City.

Nani nearly added a second goal in the 26th minute. Johnson came off his line to stop an Orlando City attack and Nani went for the chip. Chanot made up for his earlier mistake by clearing the ball off the line.

Orlando City kept the pressure on the Pigeons early in the first half. Forward Tesho Akindele almost had his third goal of the 2019 season in the 33rd minute. Midfielder Uri Rosell played a ball to Nani, who back-heeled it to Chris Mueller. The cross from Mueller was slow, but it wasn’t cleared by an NYCFC player and it fell to Akindele, who put the shot away.

Referee Drew Fischer went to the monitor to review the sequence and found Nani was offside in the build-up to the goal, so the score remained 1-0.

“I think for us, coming here, it’s a very tough place to come, so I think, statistically, when you look at New York, they’re very strong at home,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said. “I think having gone ahead and the potential opportunity to go two ahead — I still haven’t seen what’s happened there — I think the biggest thing for us was trying to manage the game and try to create a couple more opportunities.”

O’Connor said looking at the balance of play, NYCFC, which dominated possession (65.6 percent), also deserved a point. 

NYCFC turned up its attacking pressure after that disallowed goal. Forward Ismael Tajouri-Shradi Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe with a chip in the 36th minute, but his shot rolled just wide.

The Pigeons came out of the break still in attack mode and leveled the match in the 51st minute. Rowe managed to save a shot from Maxi Moralez, but the ball deflected off the post and fell right to New York City striker Héber, who gave the Pigeons their equalizer. 

NYCFC finished the match with 15 shots, five of which were on target. 

“I think the better we do defensively, the more predictable it makes it for me,” said Rowe, who had four saves on Saturday. “It’s easier. You can read the game a lot better, I feel like, and put yourself in a better situation. So, defensively, these last two games, I think we’re really starting to find our rhythm and our spots and our numbers and kind of how we can send guys forward but also be strong defensively.” 

Orlando City had a golden opportunity to take the lead in the second half. Ruan got around Alexander Callens and sent a ball to an unmarked Dom Dwyer, who came on in the 62nd minute. Dwyer, who was standing by himself in the six-yard box, put his header wide.

“He got a smack on Thursday,” O’Connor said about Dwyer. “He said he was fine in training. But again, I think for me, it was just a case of looking at it and thinking, ‘Is he going to be OK?’ and then, you know, Tesho scored twice against against New York, so we thought, well Dom coming off the bench will give us a lift.” 

O’Connor and Nani said there was a sense of disappointment in not coming away from Saturday’s match with all three points. 

“The important thing for us is that we live and die together,” O’Connor said. “We’re a team. For us, it’s a point on the road, hard fought, OK, now we focus on next week.”

The Lions return home to face Toronto FC on Saturday.

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