When the 2020 MLS season began, Orlando City SC head coach Oscar Pareja took over a club that hadn’t made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in its five prior seasons, failing to give their fervent fans postseason soccer.
But after Wednesday night's dramatic 2-1 win over Columbus Crew SC, the Lions have locked up a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and a home playoff game. The result came while they were reduced to 10 men, marking another 2020 highlight after the Lions previously advanced to the MLS is Back Tournament final this past summer.
“We are happy, of course, because we won a tough game, but we know that we didn't win nothing yet,” midfielder Mauricio Pereyra said. “We want more, we know that we are in the playoffs and this was like a playoff game for us because we know that this is a difficult rival and they had really good quality players. Of course we had emotion, but we keep the feet on the floor because we want more and I think we are ready to get this MLS Cup.”
Highlights: Orlando 2, Columbus 1
The result also eliminated Columbus from Supporters’ Shield contention, so there was a two-for-one element when Benji Michel struck for a game-winner in the 84th minute. The Homegrown forward collected a long ball on Pereyra's second assist of the night, then nutmegged Eloy Room to seal all three points.
The stakes were raised considering Nani was shown a red card in the 52nd minute after a Video Review decision. Columbus then found a 1-1 equalizer in the 56th minute through Harrison Afful, and the game had the potential to get out of hand. But Orlando dug deep and didn’t fold, creating a memorable evening in central Florida.
“We all knew it was going to be a difficult task going a man down, but even a man down we still played well,” Michel said. “You couldn't even notice we were a man down, that's how great our team is. That's how much we trust each other and how much we believe in each other's capabilities.”
As for the red card – Nani's challenge on Artur was in question – Pareja bluntly said it wasn’t the correct call and “nothing happened.” Orlando players were irate after head referee Ramy Touchan went to his back pocket, and boos rained down from the limited-capacity crowd at Exploria Stadium.
Watch: Nani's red card
During his postgame interview, Pareja looked ahead to the result’s broader implications. He didn’t want to get too excited, but feels the win shows how far they've evolved.
“I think the heart of our players came up and they showed what they have gotten to this year,” Pareja said. “A team who may not be made by the best players, but out of a bunch of players that make each other better and better. I'm very proud and I say before, tonight is an honor for me to coach these guys and I give the credit to them."
Heading into their Decision Day presented by AT&T matchup Sunday against Nashville SC (3:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), the Lions will be without Nani and Pereyra. The latter’s absence is attributed to yellow-card accumulation, while Pareja said rookie forward Daryl Dike missed out against Columbus after waking up with an infection.
Like when Orlando rattled off a 12-game unbeaten streak earlier this season, they’ll be expected to meet the latest task.
“They know the challenges will come and they know we were not, at the beginning of the season, the team where everybody was expecting big things [from],” Pareja said. “I think they understood that and they embraced that [position] and they overcome together as a group. I see them working."