When Brek Shea went down with an injury in the first half of Orlando City SC’s 2-0 win against the Colorado Rapids on June 24, the expansion club was in a solid spot in the Eastern Conference, winners of three of their last four and well within the playoff places.
Orlando found themselves in a bit of a different spot when Shea finally returned from his groin problem on Sunday night. The Lions were miserable during the two-and-a-half months the US international missed due to injury, compiling a 1-7-3 record in 11 games without the versatile midfielder. The summer swoon dropped City all the way to eighth in the East, three points behind Montreal – who has four games in hand on Orlando – heading into Sunday’s nationally televised home clash against Sporting Kansas City.
Orlando needed a spark in the worst way; they needed a win even more. They got both on Sunday in large part due to Shea, who entered the match to a raucous ovation from the Citrus Bowl crowd in the 61st minute and unleashed some seriously cathartic celebrations when he set up substitute forward Bryan Róchez’s game-winning goal five minutes later en route to a 3-1 win for Orlando.
“Brek Shea back on the field gives the crowd a lift, and his teammates a lift,” Orlando head coach Adrian Heath said after the match.
“It is just good to have him back. He can win things in the air, he can run behind people, he can create things. He is more responsible in his defensive duties. You saw the reception he got from the crowd. We will be a better team having him fit and well.”
Shea created the play that led to Róchez’s winner, scampering onto the Honduran’s flick of a David Mateos long ball on the left flank in the 66th minute. Shea corralled the bouncing ball behind the Sporting defense and raced into the box, taking a couple of awkward touches before perfectly cutting a ball back to the onrushing Róchez for a one-time finish from 12 yards out.
“I just made a run, Róchez challenged, ball came to me and I was going to goal and he kept running so I just laid off for a simple finish,” Shea said. “I was trying to get the ball for a while and luckily got the ball in the goal, which I like to do. It gave us the lead and the momentum to get another goal.”
Adrian Winter – whose third minute headed goal was cancelled out by Krisztian Nemeth's 59th minute equalizer – got that third goal six minutes later, securing the win for Orlando with his toe-poke finish in the 72nd.
The Lions are now level on points with the Impact for the sixth and final playoff spot, though Montreal still have four games in hand on Orlando. They still have plenty of work to do if they’re to become the first expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to qualify for the playoffs, but Orlando – who was without star attacker Kaká, influential midfielder Darwin Ceren and regular defender Corey Ashe on Sunday – feel much better about their chances now that they have Shea back in the rotation.
“All the teams around us are all vying for that last place. We are all going to be in Montreal’s hands, but they have a lot of games to play in not many days,” Heath said. “We will see where we go. Tonight gave us another chance and we got close to that red line.”