Orlando City will meet the Portland Timbers in the MLS is Back Tournament title — and to a large degree, the Lions have former Manchester United star Nani to thank.
Orlando, the host of the month- long, one-off, World Cup-style event created to restart the United States and Canada’s top soccer league amid the global coronavirus pandemic, got two first-half goals from its mononymous Portuguese headliner — full name: Luis Carlos Almeida da Cunha ComM — in Thursday’s 3-1 semifinal win over Minnesota United. Homegrown forward Benji Michel added the exclamation point for the Lions deep into second half stoppage time.
But while Nani, whose shootout goal against pre-tourney favorite LAFC in the quarterfinals sent the Lions to the final four, scored twice before halftime to effectively kill off the Loons, Orlando’s triumph over the Loons was a total team effort. Example: this seeing-eye 80-year pass from defender Robin Jansson that set up the star man’s 36th-minute opener:
Orlando had been threatening since the opening whistle finally blew an hour later than scheduled because of inclement weather. And as they had all tourney, the Lions — which missed the everybody-gets-in MLS Cup playoffs in each of their first five seasons in the league — again looked like the real deal under first-year coach Oscar Pareja. They dominated Minnesota for most of the match. And the Loons, helmed by beloved ex-Orlando boss Adrian Heath, had no answers until Mason Toye pulled one back in the 83rd minute.
Moments later Minnesota’s Hasani Dotson had a golden opportunity to send the match to penalties — there’s no extra time in the competition because of Central’s Florida’s punishing summer heat and humidity — but fired an open look over the crossbar, one of his team’s 14 off-target shots.
The damage was done by then, though. Quality was the difference in the end. Orlando’s top-drawer ability was on full display as Nani took down a cross-field ball from Jhegson Mendez and added his second on a brilliant curling shot just before the intermission. The strike stood up as the worthy game-winner:
While it’s true Minnesota doesn’t yet boast the firepower of its opponent Thursday — high-priced reinforcements are in the Loons plans — the loss is a bitter one for Heath as well as former Orlando attacker Kevin Molino, the Trinidad and Tobago national teamer whose time with the Lions dated to when the club was in the third-tier in the early 2010s. (Molino entered as second-half substitute and set up Toye’s goal.)
For Orlando City, it’s the biggest moment in club history, perhaps with the exception of its raucous inaugural MLS match at the Citrus Bowl in 2015. After five fruitless seasons in the top-flight, Nani and Co. will have to wait just five days for the chance to out-do both when they meet Portland on Tuesday with a CONCACAF Champions League spot — and a title — on the line.