Analysis: Columbus Crew (h). Despite Ramy Touchan's best efforts, Orlando City seals home play-off.
The great Nelson Mandela once said, 'it always seems impossible, until it's done'. A sentiment that has certainly rung true around Orlando City Soccer Club, since the club's inaugural MLS campaign in 2015. Their quest to secure MLS Cup play-offs has lurched from one disaster to another. The relief, when Orlando City finally clinched, a few weeks ago was palpable. Now Oscar Pareja's team can look forward to a home play-off berth. On a night where everything seemed against them, this team stood up strong and came up with a win that typifies this team's innate strength of character.
Orlando City were simply outstanding in a first half where they did all but put the game to bed. The Lions found Eloy Room in impervious form. Whilst their play during a very open first 45 had every onlooker purring, the second half was all about steely determination and grit. Chris Mueller's first half effort seemed to have the Lions on their way to a comfortable win. The embarrassing decision made my Ramy Touchan, to send Luis Nani off changed the game. Shortly after the Crew snatched an undeserved leveler, as a discombobulated Orlando City tried to make sense of what was happening. They faced the particularly daunting prospect of having to play almost the entire second half a man down. It was a prospect that would've filled previous Orlando City teams with fear. Not so with this team. They seem to fear nothing. Even in the face of such adversity.
It was real backs against the wall stuff after the interval. Nani had left the field in tears, such is El Capitão's commitment to this team. Mauricio Pereyra begged Oscar Pareja to keep him in the game, which worryingly led to the Uruguayan needing to come off, with what looked like hamstring trouble. The former Krasnodar playmaker's dogged determination helped to clear a path to victory. His exquisite ball over the top was coolly dispatched by Benji Michel, who had risen from the bench only minutes earlier. Pandemonium ensued as Orlando City underlined their MLS Cup credentials with a huge win.
Total football during the first half
I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Orlando's first half performance, at least in terms of their manipulation of the ball, was one of their finest of the season. They were that good. What impressed me most about their play, was their intricate movements both on and off the ball. They popped the ball around with a certain level of panache, it was truly excellent viewing. I was left with a certain feeling of je ne sais quoi when looking for superlatives to adequately do this performance justice. Mauricio Pereyra was integral to this, holding 8.9% of Orlando's 57.2% possession in the first 45. His passing statistics were, frankly, ridiculous. But, more on that later.
The whole team's movement was excellent during the entire game, the interplay between Luis Nani, Pereyra and Chris Mueller was a joy to behold. Pereyra was, at times, operating as a 10, an 8 and a 6. Darlington Nagbe and Artur weren't able to get anywhere near the mercurial Orlando playmaker, as they struggled to get to grips with his movements. The energy provided by the likes of Andres Perea and Junior Urso meant there were always options for the man on the ball. At times Columbus's midfielders were so pre-occupied with Pereyra et al, they often left Harrison Afful hopelessly exposed to the pace and trickery of Ruan down the right hand-side. Columbus were often overrun. If not for the form Room, and Orlando's lack of composure in front of goal, Oscar Pareja's team would've been out of sight by half-time.
Figure 1 shows statistics which reinforce Orlando's dominance in the first half.
Mauricio Pereyra's performance
Mauricio Pereyra is often the glue that holds this team together offensively. This team has made remarkable strides without their talismanic number 10, they are a noticeably better team with him in it. I mentioned earlier, the importance of Pereyra's movement. The Uruguayan is excellent at breaking lines both with his passing and with his movement. He was pirouetting all over the pitch, his close control bewitching Columbus players on more than one occasion. He often dragged players out of position, leaving space for others to occupy. Pereyra was all over the pitch for the entire game, his limitless energy clear for all to see. If you study the heatmap in figure 2 and his passing statistics in figure 3, you'll see just how important he was. He was magnificent.
Figure 2 shows Mauricio Pereyra's heatmap for the entire game.
Figure 3 shows Mauricio Pereyra's remarkable passing statistics, by comparison to the rest of the team for context (who were excellent themselves).
Embarrassing performance from Ramy Touchan
This wasn't your typical 'oh, we got PRO'ed'. That happens to everyone, and I don't necessarily want to feed to much into the 'PRO hates Orlando' rhetoric. But this is embarrassingly poor officiating. This is the sort of refereeing that, to my mind, severely inhibits the tremendous growth this league is experiencing. In figure 4, there's a clip of the incident with every possible angle. How a referee adjudges this a red card worthy offence, after multiple viewings, is incomprehensible. Ramy Touchan's performance was symptomatic of an inherent deficit in the quality of refereeing in this league, when compared with the rest of the world. The call represents a distinct lack of understanding in regards to how games of this nature are played. This is the sort of call that can ruin a team's season. I understand bad calls happen, but this takes the biscuit.
Figure 4 is a clip of the red card incident involving El Capitão.
I don't think it's overstating things to say his performance in this game is perhaps one of the most influential in club history. His performance had everything aside from a goal. His creative industry, his work ethic, his possession... I could go on and on. The Uruguayan was outstanding. He posted a 97% pass completion rate in that first 45 minutes, with 39 of his 40 attempts finding a teammate. He would eventually go on to record an overall pass completion rate of 94% of 69 passes. The Orlando number 10 also recorded 6 key passes, 5 accurate long balls, 3 accurate crosses and 2 assists. He also drew 4 fouls and had 1 shot at goal. He was the maestro, pulling all the strings. His ability to break lines with his passing is second to none in this league. All evening long he was finding little pockets of space to make things happen. His ball over the top for Michel, was just ridiculous. Absolutely outstanding. I would challenge anyone to recall a more influential performance from an Orlando City player, in such a high stakes game. Arguably the best number 10 in the league. Too much? Not for me. I have spoken (RIP Kuiil).
Gallese -7- Didn't have a whole lot to do, but his experience was crucial in seeing the game out.
Ruan -8- Was excellent throughout. A constant menace going forward, and was always an option. Didn't have to do a massive amount of defending, but was solid when needed.
Carlos -8- Sign that dude to a permanent contract. Now.
Jansson -8- Cool head at a time when the temperature on the field was rising.
Smith -8- Has been excellent this season. He's an unassuming figure, who can do a job anywhere in the back 4.
Urso -8- Ran all night, should've had a goal but never allowed them to settle.
Perea -8- Did an excellent job hustling Nagbe, who wasn't able to get anything going.
Pereyra -10- Absolutely outstanding, technically. Showed incredible leadership when asking not to come off. Put his body on the line, let's hope he's not too badly hurt.
Mueller -8- Looked dangerous, and ran his socks off. Took his goal well. His frustration at the referee was evident when he left the field. The man bleeds purple.
Nani -7- His link-up play was bordering on the sublime. His devastation at that pathetic red card, was clear.
Akindele -7- Led the line well, and created problems with his intelligent movement.
Mendez -7- Came in at a difficult time, but provided the energy and commitment needed to cope with being a man light.
Michel -8- Full of running, and a calm head when it mattered. Game winner.
DeZart -7- Provided fresh legs, and saw the game out.
Schlegel -7- Came in late to help get us over the line and protect the lead. Did just that.
*All statistics courtesy of mlssoccer.com and whoscored.com