When Orlando City’s Chris Mueller ran untouched from midfield to the Union’s goal in just the eighth minute of Wednesday’s road game, it felt all too familiar.
Although the Lions have been one of MLS’ worst teams for most of their five-year existence, they have often found ways to pounce on the Union in Florida.
In 2016, Orlando scored twice in three minutes in the second half before reserve Ken Tribbett forced a 2-2 tie with a 75th-minute goal. In 2017, the Union gave up a 73rd-minute goal to Cyle Larin in a 2-1 loss. And last year, after Fafa Picault put the Union up 2-1 in the 88th, Scott Sutter forced a 2-2 tie with a 91st-minute equalizer.
Only once before Wednesday night had the Union not conceded two goals in a game at Orlando: the teams’ first meeting there, a scoreless tie in 2015.
Yet, there was little visible annoyance, and certainly no sign of panic, when the Union went down early this time. They went about their business in the way that has taken them to the top of the Eastern Conference this season and asserted themselves over the next 20 minutes.
It would have settled some fans’ nerves had Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson shot the ball when Orlando’s defense gave them room, instead of passing it around to no effect. But, by the time Kacper Przybylko tied the game with a nifty cutback and shot in the 32nd minute, the Union looked fine.
Two red cards issued to the Lions certainly had a big impact, especially centerback Robin Jansson’s seconds before halftime. A dismissal at that point for a brutal tackle in the open field is high up soccer’s list of sins. The video assistant referee got the call right, and referee Chris Penso knew it as soon as he watched the replay.
Still, it mattered that the Union went for the jugular right from the opening whistle of the second half. Scoring twice in the first seven minutes was an emphatic statement.
“We had discussions at halftime of not taking our foot off the gas,” Union manager Jim Curtin said after the game. “We challenged the group that during the course of the season, you only get opportunities like this ... every so often on the road, up a man. The players really took that to heart.”
In fact, Curtin wanted to see more than he did.
“I was incredibly proud of the effort that they showed the first 20 to 25 minutes of the half, and then extremely disappointed in the last 20 minutes of the game, where it should’ve been comfortable for us, and we should’ve kept the ball better and maybe pushed for another goal,” he said.
But, at the final whistle, the Union had what mattered: their first win in Orlando.
And Orlando City’s Jansson and key playmaker Sacha Kljestan, who received the second red card, won’t be on the field for Saturday’s rematch in Chester (7 p.m., 6ABC).