Here’s a sentence I never thought I would write: Orlando City won its first ever MLS playoff game on Saturday afternoon on penalty kicks, down two men, with a center back making the biggest save of the day.
A day so historic on its own for what it meant to the club, the actual game itself will go down as one of the most chaotic, exiting, and memorable in recent history.
And quiet frankly, could it have possibly gone any other way with the Lions involved?
We’re talking about Orlando City: the team that scored a stoppage time equalizer in front of 65,000 in its very first game; the team that scored twice in stoppage time to equalize on opening day in 2016; the team that made the “Running of the Wall” happen in an Open Cup match last season; with many more memorable moments of chaos in between.
This team knows drama all too well, and all of it was on display at Exploria Stadium on Saturday as Orlando City thought they had won the game not once, not twice, but three separate times by the time the final whistle finally blew, send them through to the next round of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I think we need more time to calm down and reflect on what happened,” head coach Oscar Parjea said after the match. “The analysis of the game, it may wait for tomorrow when we can analyze the soccer side. What just happened at the end, I never saw it before and this is the beauty of this game that we’re humans and full of emotions and mistakes and good things and all of that. Today, the ball bounced our way, well deserved. The boys showed today the heart of this franchise. They showed all of that intensity and sacrifice, after we lost Ruan and also what happened in the PKs and just bouncing back from that from what just happened and all those things.”
The excitement started quickly when Nani scored on a 5th minute penalty kick to put the Lions up 1-0; but New York City FC equalized minutes later Maxime Chanot scored off a corner kick in the 10th minute. The game remained 1-1 through the end of the 90 minutes thanks in large part to Pedro Gallese, who was forced into making some huge saves throughout the afternoon, but not without Ruan‘s self-inflicted red card in the 87th minute and Tesho Akindele missing a golden opportunity for a game-winner in stoppage time, as the game went into extra time.
30 more minutes of tense soccer went by without a goal with Orlando holding on while down a man, sending the final verdict into the hands of penalty kicks.
After Maxi Moralez missed the opening kick, both teams traded successful chances until Gallese got his tentacles on Valentin Castellanos‘ shot to win the game and send Exploria Stadium into a frenzy… or so we thought.
Nope. Encroachment, second yellow card, Gallese’s game was over, Castellano would re-take the kick and give NYCFC renewed hoped. Pareja, who immediately sprinted down to the tunnel and up to the locker room to be with Ruan, who was alone after being sent off, had to be retrieved and brought back out to the field.
So, in a stunning sequence, in comes back-up goalkeeper Brian Rowe… or so we thought.
Nope. No subs allowed in penalty kicks, Rowe had to come off the field, Rodrigo Schlegel would step up to grab the gloves and stand in goal.
Castellanos would re-take his penalty and convert. Nani steps up to win the game: saved by Sean Johnson. Two more penalties, one from each side, would go in successfully before Gudmundur Thórarinsson stepped up to face Schlegel, who prior to the biggest moment of his life only had recent goalkeeping experience playing in the back yard with his family in Argentina.
Thórarinsson went to his right. So did Schlegel. Save made. Pandemonium erupts in the stadium as just about everybody thinks the game is, again, over. Not so fast, Orlando still has to score one more time, which they do when Benji Michel steps up to take the kick and finally, mercifully, thankfully end the game.
“I never have had such an experience during a game, during an important game like that,” Nani said about the wild shootout that lastest over 20 minutes. “I must say, it doesn’t look good for the league and for the spectacle of the football. About Rodrigo, it’s amazing. It’s amazing the personality he had in that moment and he wanted just to go to the goal. He wanted to save the penalty and he did for the team.”
It’s no secret that this has been a challenging calendar year for, well, everybody. A global pandemic has spun the world upside down, taking over a quarter of a million American lives to this point, with more and more everyday. It has effected sports at every level — Sebas Mendez couldn’t even be with the team on Saturday because of a COVID outbreak among the Ecuadorian national team he was with this past week — and at no point has this been an easy year for soccer.
From spending more than a month inside a bubble, away from family for the MLS is Back tournament, to same-day flights for games all across the east coast while injuries simultaneously piled up, to this playoff game itself. Orlando City has faced scores of challenges this season, and in the face of all that, remained standing on Saturday, leaving the field victorious in one of the biggest soccer moments this city has every been a part of.
“It means a lot being in the playoffs and just sending a message to the community that we’re not just content with bringing them to the playoffs. That the players want more and they know that the responsibility is on their shoulders to bring joy and to make this team protagonists of Major League Soccer,” Pareja said.
“With all the circumstances of what happened, it magnified what they did tonight. It has been a long journey this year with what happened with the pandemic with people being in their houses and not being able to come to the stadium. People suffered in many other ways, losing their loved ones and we have such emotions in our body, in our minds that we want to get out and today the game gave us that opportunity. To bring all those emotions out, I’m very happy for what just happened to us.”
For a world that has taken so much from us this year — not being able to play this game in front of packed Exploria Stadium for one — you have to be thankful for some of the silver linings it has actually provide. This game will go down as one of those moments, and no matter what happens from here on out through the rest of the playoffs, 2020 will always be the year that gave us the wackiest, most chaotic, and most memorable Orlando City match we’ve ever seen.
“We need to make many corrections and many things that happened in that last part, but we are proud to represent this community,” Pareja said. “We are proud to win and beat one of the best teams in Major League Soccer with 10 men on the field, multiplying themselves for this team. That made me very proud. We will prepare for the next game because this doesn’t stop, but what happened today I will keep in my memory forever.”
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