It was Orlando’s playoff debut, qualifying for just the first time in six seasons, while NYC was making its fifth consecutive postseason appearance.
Orlando’s strong season began in the MLS is Back Tournament, where they shocked the league and made their way to the final. After the resumption of the regular season, the Lions cruised to a top-four spot in the East, locking up home field advantage in the first round.
NYCFC on the other hand put together a largely underwhelming 2020 campaign. Unable to match the offensive ability of the 2019 Eastern Conference-leading team, NYCFC stumbled into the fifth seed in the East under new coach Ronny Deila.
NYC and Orlando kicked off in the first of eight first-round matches, setting the tone for a wild but entertaining weekend.
Both goals came in the early minutes, with New York and Orlando attacking strongly in the early minutes. At just the four-minute mark, Orlando built a strong attacking move down the right. A dangerous cross was headed by Nani into the arm of Anton Tinnerholm, and referee Allen Chapman pointed to the penalty spot.
Nani stepped up to take the kick, stopping a pair of times in his run up. Sean Johnson pointed at the Orlando captain, who put the ball past the NYC keeper for the 1-0 lead. Johnson stormed out to demand an answer from Chapman, but the referee awarded the goal.
New York retaliated instantly, with Maxi Moralez and Jesus Medina pouncing on a loose ball in the attacking third. Orlando goalkeeper Pedro Gallese stepped forward to steer the ball out, with Medina sliding into him.
Orlando defender Robin Jansson steered the ball out of danger for a New York City corner. Medina whipped the ball in, with Maxime Chanot bullying his way into the six-yard box to meet it and level the score.
The 1-1 scoreline, set within the first 10 minutes of the match, would hold for over 100 more minutes. Even so, both sides battled hard, with nonstop action from one end of the pitch to the other.
Gallese put on a stellar performance between the posts for Orlando to wrap up the half. Twenty-four minutes in, a Jesus Medina volley was denied by a brilliant save. A minute later, a Keaton Parks shot was another to be swallowed up by “El Pulpo.”
Gallese’s best play of the night came in the 43rd minute. A long shot by Taty Castellanos was parried, but the rebound fell to Parks with a gaping net ahead. Gallese sprung up miraculously to preserve the deadlock with a strong hand.
The second half proved more chaotic and scrappy than the first, with fantastic goalkeeping preserving the score. Tempers began to boil over in the last 15 minutes of play.
A NYC corner was broken up and Anton Tinnerholm got set to control the ball and restart the attack. Orlando’s Ruan charged in, clashing into the Swedish defender’s head with his shoulder.
Tinnerholm required medical attention on the field and was later substituted off. City players furiously demanded action from Chapman, but Ruan was given a yellow card and play was continued with Tinnerholm’s treatment continuing off the field.
Ten minutes later, tempers boiled over again. A hard challenge on a 50/50 ball by Gary Mackay-Steven ended with him and Ruan tangled on the ground. Mackay-Steven gave Ruan a shove in the stomach while standing up and out of retaliation, Ruan kicked out at the Scottish winger.
The kick earned Ruan a straight red after a brief video review. Mackay-Steven went into the ref’s book with a yellow card, but the damage was done, with Orlando down to ten men for the last minutes of regulation.
Despite the man advantage, NYCFC began to look out of breath and out of ideas. Orlando was able to stand up to the New York attack, with Gallese again standing strong to send the game into extra time after ten minutes of stoppage time.
Extra time did not fare well for New York’s attack either, with their offense unable to produce any meaningful chances. Players continued to blow opportunities and were unable to beat Gallese.
Penalties loomed overhead, the first for either club at this big of a stage. Both clubs have limited histories in penalties, with a handful of US Open Cup shootouts between the two, including a 2019 match where Orlando downed NYCFC, 5-4.
Maxi Moralez stepped up to take the first penalty for New York to the dismay of fans who had watched the creative midfielder miss from the spot many times before. Moralez’s shot rattled off the crossbar, Gallese celebrating the early advantage.
The next nine penalties were converted, but Gallese leapt across to parry a shot by Castellanos. With Orlando celebrating on the field, assistants told Chapman that Gallese came off his line early. Chapman issued a second yellow card to Gallese and called for penalties to resume.
Orlando tried to sub on their backup goalkeeper, but after a chaotic five minutes it was ruled they were not allowed to make a new substitution, forcing defender Rodrigo Schlegel into goal.
Castellanos converted his second chance and Sean Johnson stood tall to deny Nani and level the game. NYCFC’s window would not last long. Gudmundur Thórarinsson fired a weak penalty to Schlegel’s left, stopped by the stand-in keeper, who was instantly swarmed by teammates.
Orlando still had to convert to seal victory, but Benji Michel finally ended the contest, sending Orlando City on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
For NYCFC, it was a disappointing and fitting end to a lackluster and mediocre season. A fifth-place finish is the lowest mark for City since their inaugural season saw them finish eighth behind Orlando, who also missed out on the postseason.
One final chance lies ahead for NYCFC to salvage their season, with the CONCACAF Champions League resuming in December. After a 1-0 loss to Tigres UANL in March, NYC needs to pull out a big win as they hope to shake a brutal and demoralizing playoff loss.
Regardless of the December match, NYCFC need answers to their woes. The club has lost a few top offensive options already, and with a big offseason looming, changes are beyond necessary to keep the club’s head above water.