TORONTO — Orlando City held a brief lead in Toronto on Saturday night, but the Lions settled for a 1-1 draw after a late-game foul set up a goal off of a free kick. Here are three things we learned from the match:
Players continue to thrive off the bench
For Orlando City, a point of strength throughout this season has been its ability to bring injections of energy off the bench.
In situations such as Saturday night’s match, the bench is critical in shifting momentum. After both teams suffered a bit of an attacking lull in the first half — taking only seven shots combined — Toronto FC roared out of the gates in the second half. Bolstered by its home crowd, the team was able to take control of the game and began to bludgeon the Orlando City backline, forcing the Lions to hunker down on the defensive end.
Orlando City sub Benji Michel brought a spark of immediate energy. Watching from the sidelines, the rookie was encouraged by his teammates to be dangerous from the moment he hit the pitch. His first handful of touches resulted in the Lions’ only goal.
“I think the understanding of being selfless is something that the guys have been excellent at this year,” Orlando City coach James O’Connor said. “Whoever has come off the bench [is ready to] score a goal or make an impact defensively. The next man up mentality and the culture that we’ve been trying to build is starting to come true.”
This will continue to be a point of emphasis for O’Connor as the team makes its final push for a postseason bid. With nine games left in the season, there won’t be any “off” games for Orlando City, which means there can be no dropoff when different players join the lineup.
Key starters — such as Nani, who played a full 90 both on Saturday and in last Tuesday’s Open Cup match — might see reduced playing time, coming off the bench instead in order to keep fresh legs on the pitch. The team’s ability to continue to produce off the bench will make a major impact in its ability to reach the playoffs for the first time in club history.
Penalty kick scare rattled Orlando
Toronto earned its equalizer in unusual fashion on Saturday night. In transition, Michel tackled an attacker, earning an immediate foul. Initially, however, the referee called for a penalty kick, claiming that Michel was in the box.
Orlando City players swarmed him, pointing to the sideline until he referred to VAR, which supported the Lions and awarded a free kick instead. But those minutes of confusion served a purpose of their own, dismantling the team’s focus. The free kick still came from a dangerous position — the base of the box — and when the initial shot was deflected awkwardly in front of goal, TFC’s Patrick Mullins was able to pounce and finish it off.
The team described the goal different ways — goalkeeper Brian Rowe called it frustrating, Kamal Miller called it cheap. Ultimately, the moment of chaos shook Orlando City out of its defensive shape, which had otherwise fended off a furious Toronto attack.
“It’s an emotional one where all the guys are trying to make sure the refs are looking and then it’s a matter of flipping that switch,” Rowe said. “Once the call is called, we need to turn back on. It’s still a dangerous area.”
Rowe had been pleased with the way his team handled the Toronto attack. On the road, Orlando City typically falls into a more defensive shape, and that trend continued on Saturday. Although Toronto claimed more possession and took 18 shots, however, the Lions successfully fended off the home team’s attack for most of the game, converting defensive stands into transition plays on the opposite end.
To O’Connor, the goal was a reflection of how a momentary lapse in concentration can completely flip the outcome of a game.
“I think then our concentration needs to be really on point,” O’Connor said. “I think the shock of seeing a penalty, people are still in shock [after] the call, and we just need to concentrate a little bit quicker and defend down.”
Lions continue road resilience
Although the team felt a sting of disappointment after letting a brief lead to slip away, Saturday was another positive result on the road for Orlando City.
Despite floating just under the red line for most of this season, the Lions rank among the top teams in the Eastern Conference when it comes to earning points on the road. The team is tied for third-most points in the East earned away from home so far this season. Philadelphia remains on top with 18 away points and New York City FC and D.C. United are tied up in second with 16 apiece.
Orlando City follows shortly behind, however, tied with New England and Montreal with 14 points earned on the road. In comparison, the Lions have earned 16 points at home so far this season, playing one less game at Exploria Stadium than on the road.
For the Lions, the majority of that success has come from securing draws in enemy territory. The team has drawn five games on the road now, tied with New England for the most road draws in the conference.
While draws on the road are still positive results for Orlando City, they will become less to celebrate as the season nears its end. Saturday’s result didn’t budge the team from its No. 9 position, with the Lions remaining three points behind Toronto and Montreal in pursuit of a place above the red playoff cutoff line. A win would have vaulted Orlando City over Toronto into the No. 8 position, only a point away from playoff contention. That knowledge took some of the shine off the draw as Orlando City returns home to face off against Sporting KC on Wednesday.