Orlando City SC were shown a straight red card for the second straight Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs game on Sunday, only this time they couldn’t conjure up some late-game magic at Exploria Stadium.
Mauricio Pereyra was sent off in the 60th minute for a studs-up challenge from behind into Matt Polster’s calf, tilting the scales in the New England Revolution’s eventual 3-1 win as they booked a spot in the Eastern Conference Final.
Despite the setback and Orlando playing with 10 men yet again, head coach Oscar Pareja stressed that he supports their Designated Player, who was visibly emotional as he walked off.
“I know Mauro and I know how much he would be hurt at this moment,” Pareja said. “For me as a coach, it's easy ... to be praising the players or to be backing the players up when we win, when they do all these good things. I'm behind them as well or even more when these things happen.”
Watch: Mauricio Pereyra's red card
RED CARD: Mauricio Pereyra, Orlando City SC - 60th minute
During the club’s Round One win, which came in penalty kicks against New York City FC after a 1-1 draw, Orlando right back Ruan was shown a red card in the 87th minute for kicking out at Gary Mackay-Steven after a challenge. Another sending off followed in the shootout when goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was shown a second yellow card.
Those two absences saw the Lions turn to backups – goalkeeper Brian Rowe and outside back Kamal Miller filled in – but it was another rush of emotions that made the task exorbitantly difficult. Pareja attributed the setback to a “lot of pain” and “a lot of frustration” they carried from last week, but also didn’t want to make excuses for a situation that “was absolutely not necessary.”
“It has been very challenging with all that has happened during the weeks,” Pareja said. “But we're professionals and I think we have to learn and find a way and find our character and deal with all these things that are part of the game. Certainly today was another moment where we lost our head. I want to be responsible for all that. This is something that cannot happen.”
Midfielder Junior Urso, who scored Orlando’s only goal in the 33rd minute, said they “lost the control about our mind” at certain moments. He was one of five players referee Alex Chilowicz booked, with his coming in the 75th minute.
Even down to 10 men, Orlando could’ve drawn level at 2-2 in the 74th minute. Nani stepped up to take a penalty kick after Daryl Dike was tripped in the 18-yard box, but Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner dove to his right for a stop.
Watch: Nani's missed PK
PK SAVE: Matt Turner, New England Revolution - 74th minute
The DP winger also addressed the frustrations that hobbled Orlando during their first playoff run, adding he feels they’re a “strong team” that fought to the end and made other teams “scared” even when playing with 10 men.
“It's quite difficult. It looked like every time something happened to us,” Nani said. “I'm not complaining, I'm not saying it was on purpose or someone is trying to take us down, but if we look back in the last three games it's strange, every game we played at home and it's zero tolerance. Then that makes it difficult for us, emotional, because we are human beings, we work hard to be here, to play and come on the field. But I think it must be for both sides, you know.”
The Ruan and Pereyra red cards will weigh heavily for Orlando all offseason, particularly because both challenges weren’t needed and came in games of such high stakes. They’re both difference-makers, too, with Ruan’s speed on the right a constant threat and Pereyra capable of providing a match-winning play at any moment.
Even still, Orlando are already looking ahead to 2021. They took serious strides forward during Pareja’s first year at the helm, making the playoffs for the first time in club history, and will hope to keep climbing.
“I'm still proud about these guys, about the staff, about the coach, about Orlando fans,” Urso said. “They make me better this season and I hope next year we come more strong to try to make history. Because now we are different. I [saw] the history before, Orlando never was here in the playoffs and played like that. I want more, we want more so let's try next season because that's not the end for us."