Orlando City has never won an MLS playoff game. Heck, it's never played in one. Yet the Lions are 90 minutes away from being crowned MLS is Back champions.
Nani saw to that, with the former Manchester United star scoring two great goals in a six-minute span in the first half as part of a 3-1 win over Minnesota United in their semifinal Thursday night.
The de facto tournament host team didn't start off all too brightly, but Nani changed all that to seize momentum and point Orlando in the direction of the Aug. 11 final against the Portland Timbers. Lightning in the area had delayed the semifinal's opening kick by an hour. Then a little more than half an hour into the match, it struck twice on the field in the form of the Orlando City captain.
With Minnesota starting right back Romain Metanire out injured, it gave the 33-year-old veteran a matchup advantage against versatile U.S. U-23 midfielder Hassani Dotson. Pressed into a fullback role, Dotson fared O.K. against the vastly more-experienced Nani until the 36th minute. That's when Robin Jansson fired a pinpoint, long-range diagonal out of the back, picking out Nani on the left channel. A gorgeous first touch set Nani up for the rest, and he showed the strength to hold off Dotson before slotting the ball by goalkeeper Tyler Miller.
His second goal was even more special, though Dotson was guilty of affording Nani too much space. Perhaps having his attention momentarily diverted by a pair of off-ball runs, Dotson shied away and allowed Nani to set himself up for a curling, 20-yard blast in the 42nd minute that doubled the lead.
Orlando was forced to sweat it out late, with Minnesota's wave of pressure paying off with a consolation goal. Mason Toye did the honors, running onto a great through ball from Kevin Molino to beat Pedro Gallese to make it 2-1.
With Minnesota continuing to push for an equalizer, with a late flurry and close call reminiscent of scenes from the 2019 U.S. Open Cup final, Orlando struck on the counter. Benji Michel–who played his college soccer in Portland–rounded Miller and finished into an empty net after taking a pass from Nani to cap the scoring and set up a showdown vs. the Timbers.
The night otherwise belonged to Orlando's top star. Nani, to his credit, entered the competition with an open mind and a positive outlook on just how far Orlando could go despite the club's historical lack of success. With three goals and four assists in Orlando's six matches (one goal and two assists took place in the group stage and will count toward his regular-season totals), he's as much of a reason as anyone for Orlando being in the final and could wind up challenging Portland's Sebastian Blanco (three goals, five assists) for tournament MVP honors depending on how the title match goes.
“I think it’s equal for everyone," Nani told Sports Illustrated before the tournament began. "Being away from our facilities for so long, we had to adapt ourselves to come back as soon as possible. But before you see the teams on the field playing a game, you cannot say who will be the favorite, who’s going to win or who is better than whom. You need to see the teams; you need to see how they will perform, how the motivation of the players will be. But one thing I can tell is that we are working hard, and our coach (Oscar Pareja) has been giving everything to us, trying to help us improve and our game. And I think we’ve been doing great work."
Pareja's imprint on the club has been apparent upon his return to MLS after a stint with Club Tijuana. Nani's imprint has been all over this tournament, too, and Orlando is now one win away from securing the club's first tangible piece of success in MLS and sealing an unlikely berth in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.
Portland, the 2015 MLS Cup winner and 2018 finalist, will enter the final with a vastly greater pedigree. No player on the field, however, will have more big-game experience than Nani, the four-time Premier League champion who has 16 club trophies and a Euro 2016 champion's medal to go along with his starting role for Portugal at the 2014 World Cup.