Orlando City came inches away from notching a road victory on Saturday night, holding a 1-0 lead for the first 70 minutes of the game before ceding two goals in three minutes for a 2-1 loss. Here are three things we learned from the match:
Pereyra and Higuita make the difference
During the past two games, Orlando City has shown glimpses of what type of team it can be with the added quality of Mauricio Pereyra and Cristian Higuita in midfield. The two players are well suited to one another in speed and style, creating a sustainable pace of passing and ball distribution that allows Orlando City to control the tempo of the game as it moves through the midfield.
The health of these two stars, however, served as a detriment during both of the games they played together. The heat in Houston was a challenge for both sides from the start of the game, with players were drenched in sweat in the opening 10 minutes due to the heavy humidity from the recent tropical depression.
This weather affected Pereyra — who is still working up to full match fitness — particularly heavily, forcing coach James O’Connor to pull him out at the 63rd minute. O’Connor was particularly frustrated to have to pull Pereyra, who had served up the pinpoint pass for the team’s opening goal from Dom Dwyer.
“He’s got a great ability to keep the ball and see where to pass,” O’Connor said of Pereyra. “His understanding of the game is very good.”
Higuita began to feel pain in his adductor — the muscles around the groin — at halftime. He and O’Connor agreed to make a substitution at some point in the second half, but Higuita powered through for almost 20 more minutes before finally requesting the substitution at the same time as Pereyra.
After the game, O’Connor described that moment as the turning point of the game. After establishing its movement through the midfield for the first two thirds of the game, the Lions completely lost their grasp on movement. The team’s confidence dropped off as well on the attack. Although the team launched several more attacks on the Houston goal before the final whistle, the team played rattled, pushing ahead impatiently rather than building through the gut of the field as it had done previously.
Dwyer’s head proves lethal again
After 11 games without a goal netted, Dwyer scored during the second consecutive game. The goal came off a set piece, with Pereyra bending a cross down perfectly for Dwyer to hammer home with the crown of his head.
It was the fifth straight time the striker scored with his head, garnering an amusing celebration as Lamine Sané knelt and pretended to polish off Dwyer’s temple.
20' | Dom was feeling another!
— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) September 22, 2019
Dwyer looked dangerous throughout the night, knocking four shots on frame and challenging the backline from both distance and in transition. He continues to build a connection with Pereyra and the duo has shown the midfielder’s precision paired with the striker’s finishing ability can become deadly for Orlando City.
For Dwyer, however, it’s a question of whether his recent scoring is coming too late. His dry spell came during a period when the Lions were struggling across the roster with finishing. Regardless, the team will benefit if Dwyer can continue to find the net in these critical final games of the season.
Loss knocks Lions lower
Orlando City players understood their chance of reaching the postseason relied on a positive result in Houston. After the loss, O’Connor said emotions were high in the locker room as the team felt “deeply disappointed” with the loss.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the evening was the fact that the other Eastern Conference results the Lions had been relying on all went their way. New England drew 0-0 to move up to 41 points and Montreal lost 2-1 to the Galaxy to remain at a standstill.
If Orlando City had maintained its lead, the team would have pulled within two points of the playoff cutoff line. Instead, the loss dropped the team five points back from the line.
The Lions aren’t technically eliminated from postseason contention just yet — FiveThirtyEight.com puts their chances at squeaking in at 4% now. For Orlando City, the formula remains the same in the final stretch of the season. The team must win out while praying that New England doesn’t earn another point in order to make up the five-point gap.
It’s not impossible, but a lack of points Saturday makes that challenge even more difficult. For the Lions, it’s now a waiting game to see the results of New England’s match in Portland on Wednesday.