The final home match of 2015 was something of a microcosm of the entire inaugural MLS campaign for Orlando City. There were some exciting goals scored by this unbiased blogger's MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin, there were some yellow cards handed out to some of our younger players for letting their emotions get the best of them and arguing with the referee, and there was an injury to a key player. In this case, the injury came late to netminder Tally Hall, who left the match in the 84th minute after going down at the top of the area and clutching his knee in pain. As he was helped off he didn't put any weight on the leg, and media reports later confirmed it was the same knee he tore his ACL during the 2014 season.
The Lions also drew the second largest home crowd of the season, 43,179. From the supporters in The Wall to the sideline fans and those in the family section, the crowd was at full song all match, and the enthusiasm in the stands was both fueled by and helped to inspire some of the most energetic play on the pitch we have seen all season.
Cyle Larin accounted for both goals scored by Orlando City in the 2 - 1 victory. Replay shows that he actually should have been credited for three goals, and when he was subbed out in the 80th minute, match referee Allen Chapman appeared to apologize to the rookie for missing the call on the goal. To Chapman's credit, NYCFC goaltender Josh Saunders and Defender Jefferson Mena both smothered the ball on Larin's scoring attempt in the 74th minute and got it back in play before either the assistant or the man in the middle could be close enough to see that the ball had crept all the way over the goal line. The purist in me doesn't mind that replay is not a thing on goals in MLS as long as my team won the match, but the fan in me would love to have seen replay be able to correct the call and give Larin credit for his 18th goal of the season.
The victory marks Orlando City's longest winning streak of the season, with five outright wins in the last five matches and one more match to play in the regular season. If New England is able to defeat Montreal at home tonight, then Orlando City will still have a shot at the sixth and final playoff spot going into the final match of the season on October 25.
2015 Reflections and Kudos
With the last home match of the regular season in the books, it's time to look back at some of the best moments of the year at the Citrus Bowl.
Best Tailgate Party (ies)
The last two months of the season featured the three greatest tailgate parties of the season. The long rain delay for the August 29 match against Chicago Fire resulted in an extended tailgate party featuring a hurricane theme. Our party had an International flair with fans from Ireland, England, Italy, and the USA all enjoying hurricane drinks and lots of grilled food until well after 9:00 pm before the match ever kicked off.
Then on October 3, my usual tailgate group was decimated by out-of-town travel and family obligations, so I accepted an invitation from some friends in The Ruckus to join their tailgate. After filling up on some great Oktoberfest food to start the party, a group of four or five of us drained an entire bottle of smooth rye whiskey as we talked about stories of great matches, old girlfriends, and bad bosses. After this we stumbled our way to the stadium where we enjoyed the spectacle of Orlando City taking down Montreal to keep playoff hopes alive.
And yesterday finished the home season off in style. In keeping with our "grill the competition" tailgate theme all year, some friends of ours ponied up and brought in several pizza pies from Anthony's Pizza in Casselberry. It was a fantastic way to finish out the tailgating season, and we look forward to another great season of tailgates in 2016.
MVP of the Season
It's hard to narrow down to just one MVP for Orlando City, because as the season has unfolded different players have contributed so much. OK--it's not really that hard to name Cyle Larin as MVP for the entire season. Not only is he a shoe-in for MLS Rookie of the Year, he's also the leading scorer of the team, sitting on 17 credited goals (should be 18 if the refs had got the call right last night). But aside from Larin, it could be argued that Kaka, Aruelien Collin, Tally Hall, and Brek Shea have all added tremendous contributions to the team.
The signing of Kaka announced to the MLS that Orlando City was launching into the league with the intention of being a serious contender and not just another franchise. Throughout the season his individual skill has been on display numerous times, and his effectiveness as a playmaker has been greatly enhanced as the quality and experience of the team around him has grown throughout the year. Early on he contributed greatly for us from the penalty spot, and in the last two months his teammates have really come alive around him, letting him display the kind of wizardry in the open field that earned him the 2007 Ballon D'Or.
Aurelien Collin anchored a defensive line that has grown up a lot during the 2015 season. At the beginning and even the middle part of the season, they were young and undisciplined and really not that good. They are tied on 55 for the most goals allowed by any team in the league, and a lot of that is due to players being out of position when opponents got counter-attack chances. Collin has always been leading by example on defense, throwing himself at every ball coming his way and coaching up his younger teammates on the back line to help them better understand where to be and what to do as the season has progressed. The quality of that improved defense has been on display over the last five matches, with the team much more deftly tackling the ball away from opponents to disrupt counter-attack opportunities and being much better positioned to deflect balls away from clear shots on goal.
Brek Shea has proven himself to be the best pure passer and assist creator on the team. His length and energetic style let him cover ground on the pitch like a two-legged gazelle, and he can make full-speed passes with a deft touch better than anyone else on the squad. It's unfortunate that he spent so much of the season injured, or he may well be my number one pick for team MVP.
And what can we say about goalkeeper Tally Hall? He has made some tremendous saves throughout the season, and has been called upon to make many more than he should have had to make due to the poor defending in the early part of the season. With his speed and cat-like reflexes, he has made fans cheer and kept playoff hopes alive a lot longer than many expected by being the final obstacle between attacking opponents and our goal.
TIFO of the Year
I already mentioned how great "The Wall" of the supporters groups (Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm) have been this season. And throughout the season they've come up with some great TIFOs. But by far the best one was last night at the final match of the season. It featured a three-panel design showing the past, present, and future of the club now that the official announcement about the OCB USL side has been made.
All year the two supporter groups have been the engine driving the crowd's energy at the stadium. And as someone who has had the chance to enjoy them from the north end zone, I have to say their chants, organization, and energy has just grown better match by match. Back on March 8, I thought they were a little drowned out by the thunder of the 62,500 fans that attended the home opener, but that is probably to be expected in such a large crowd where everyone was on a high of excitement about the maiden MLS match for two expansion teams. But as the year ground along, the drums and chants and energy of the supporter groups became infectious throughout the stadium, and even at the far end of the stadium we found ourselves chanting along with them as they encouraged the team through the dog days of summer.
All in all, it's been a fantastic season. We still have one more regular season match to go, and as of this writing there is still a chance we could pass Montreal and gain the final playoff spot. The winning streak that the club has accumulated over the past few matches should make every Orlando City fan very excited about our prospects if the team does make the playoffs, as well as making everyone thrilled for the team's chances going into the 2016 season.