Opening Match: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A beautiful day for a match

When a new era in sports is set to begin, you hope that everything goes perfectly. And while some OCSC fans will be disappointed that the club only managed a result of a draw from their first ever MLS match, so many other things went so nearly perfect that the day had to be ruled a huge success.

To start, the folks at the Chamber of Commerce could not have been happier with the weather. As late as Wednesday or Thursday I had seen reports that the day could be cloudy and possibly rainy. But as the pictures from the images page demonstrate, you couldn't have asked for a more lovely day. The temperature was just perfect as well, just sneaking into the low 80s with a nice breeze all day that kept it from feeling muggy.

One of the few dampers on the day was the SNAFU with the SunRail trains. Since there was an event at the Performing Arts Center, the soccer match, and an Orlando Magic game all happening on the same day, the two sports teams decided to pay to run free train service all afternoon downtown. It was a great idea, but the execution left something to be desired. Half my tailgate group planned to travel downtown by rail, but they wound up taking an Uber ride instead because the trains were packed by the time they reached the Altamonte Springs station where they planned to board.

Tailgating with style

The rest of us headed to our designated tailgate spot, Lot A by Lake Lorna Doone. We arrived around 1:15 pm, not encountering much traffic until just a few blocks before reaching the stadium, and we were able to park and set up our gear quickly before chatting up some of the other early arrivals and getting to know some of our tailgate neighbors. An hour or so later our other friends arrived and we broke out the food to start grilling.

Taking a page out of my UCF football tailgates, I prepared a menu to "grill the competition," deciding that New York Strip steak would be good. Another friend provided cheesecake for dessert. Yes, we decided to live it up. There was also some fine locally crafted beer from the Hourglass Brewery in Longwood (the Seminole Trail brew comes highly recommended), and another buddy brought a bottle of 18 year-old rum to enjoy.

Around 3:30 we packed up the gear and decided to take a stroll around the stadium to see some of the other tailgate lots and sights. The crowds were pretty heavy already, so we only made it about halfway around the stadium before we decided to head inside to take our seats. The electronic scanners that gate agents were using to admit fans were out of commission at the time, and so those of us with our season ticket cards had to wait a few minutes for the system to come back online before we could enter.

When we got to our seats with about 25 minutes before kickoff, the stadium was perhaps half full, but more and more purple-clad fans kept streaming in, and the Supporter Section on the far end of the stadium was already getting their drums, chants, and flag-waving started. As the clock continued counting down to kickoff, the buzz of excitement built through the playing of the National Anthem and the introduction of the starting lineups. Then the moment of kickoff came, and the crowd erupted with joy.

The Match As I Saw It

Now if you want technical analysis from a knowledgeable fan about Sunday's match, I may not be the best person to ask. I mentioned in previous posts I'm not the biggest expert on the game, but there are several things I noticed from the very beginning of the game. 

The first is the electricity that infuses the stadium when Kaka is on the ball. Partly I'm sure it's the collective expectation, but the soccer ball really does seem to love dancing with the man's feet, and when he receives the ball in the middle of a possession, or when he starts to break with the ball toward the opposing goal, there's just a sense that something magical is imminent. 

The second thing is that someone from NYCFC's ownership group must have some very uncompromising photos of referee Alan Kelly, who called an "absolutely horribly adjudicated match" as my friend Carlos put it when I saw him after the contest. Now to be fair to the officials I have not gone back to watch the match on TV yet, but from the stands the yellow cards handed out to Orlando City players Brek Shea, Kevin Molino, and Chrisitan Higuita all seemed unwarranted. In each case, the large video replay clearly showed an NYCFC defender sticking a boot out like a New York Rangers hockey stick to hook the ankle of a charging Lions player. Then after one of our lads went down, the buffoon in the referee's colors handed out a yellow for simulation while the guilty NYCFC player flailed his hands around like a disco-era gigolo trying to wave away the stink of his own cheap cologne. 

I may change my mind about the calls after watching the match again on TV (I'm sad to say how often I have to admit college football refs got a call right when it clearly looked like a botched call in the stands), but for now I'm calling shenanigans on the officiating and I will be satisfied with nothing less than congressional hearings on the matter. But I digress.

As for the ugly (and scary), there was truly only one nasty moment. I give NYCFC goalkeeper Josh Saunders tons of credit for gritting out the last 76 minutes of the match. While making a save on a deep cross by Orlando's Lewis Neal, Saunders collided with Seb Hines, and the keeper struck his noggin hard on the side post of the goal. The ball momentarily came loose and was kicked home for an apparent goal, but it was disallowed by referee Kelly. To be perfectly honest I was so concerned with the way Saunders fell to the pitch that I never looked to see if the goal was disallowed for offsides by Hines or something else, but there appeared to be no booking for  the collision, so I'm not entirely sure why the goal was disallowed unless there is some kind of rule that all game action has to cease at the moment of a potentially serious injury to a player. After three minutes of treatment for a cut on his scalp, Saunders was allowed to continue playing in the NYCFC goal, and while he seemed a bit groggy, NYCFC's defense kept him from being called upon for a few minutes until he seemed to catch a second wind.

As for the two defenses, I saw a contrast in styles played out on the pitch. Both show some early season jitters and room for improvement, but the defense for Orlando City seemed to be slightly better at dispossessing NYCFC of the ball before they could take the shots, and NYCFC seemed better at interposing themselves to deflect or redirect shots by Orlando City away from the goal. It seemed that Orlando City was able to take more shots on goal, but the strikes toward the net by NYCFC seemed like they were every bit as calculated and considered.

In terms of the offenses, both sides also seemed to show flashes of brilliance but a lot of early season jitters. With both sides being full of players that have not worked together much, it seems natural that it will take several matches for them to become fully gelled as the two managers craft a stable starting lineup. Adrian "Inchy" Heath preaches possession, possession, possession, and sometimes it seems like the squad try too hard to pass first before shooting, even when they get down in the box before the opposing goal. It seemed like every few minutes one of our strikers would get the ball on his feet inside the 18-yard box with a fair window on frame, and would opt to pass it wide to a teammate instead of hammering a shot at the net. I feel like there could have been at least a half-dozen more shots taken by OCSC players during the match, and if one of those goes in, then we emerge with three points on the day instead of one.

The two goals scored in the match were also contrasts. In the 76th minute, Mix Diskerud arced a laser shot to the bottom right corner of the Orlando City goal to put NYCFC up a goal and break the nil - nil tie. Then in the first minute of stoppage time, Kaka went Willie Mosconi on the pitch and angled a free kick off a member of NYCFC's constructed wall to find the back of the net for the equalizer. What made the goal even more dramatic was the fact that several minutes earlier, Orlando City defender Aurelien Collin (who was celebrating his 29th birthday) had been sent off with a straight red card for a studs-up challenge against David Villa of NYCFC, putting the home team down a man.

Collin's ejection seemed to sharpen the focus of the home squad, possibly even more than did giving up the goal to Diskerud. At any rate, it seemed the home team made Josh Saunders work a little harder in the final few minutes of the game than they had earlier by keeping the ball deep in NYCFC's end and taking shots on goal every time they had an opening. The result was at least two free kicks just outside the area, the second of which resulted in Kaka's goal.

Wrap-up

All in all it was a fantastic day. Kaka seemed genuinely thrilled to give the home crowd something to cheer about by the end of the match, and I think the fans were equally excited that he should make history as the first Orlando City player to score a goal in the MLS era. After the match I met up with the OC Lions Fan TV crew who were catching fan reactions after the match. They were getting a lot of fan perspectives, and I urge you to check out their site and give them a follow on twitter @OCLionsFan_tv. Hopefully we will catch up with them at more events and capture some of their thoughts on the blog during the season as well.

Speaking of fan reactions--the biggest thing missing from this recap of the match is your voice! Watch our twitter feed and please leave us your thoughts and perspective on the match. If you'd like to see your views posted on the blog, click on our Read Me page and send us an email with your questions, inquiries, or draft posts. The Lion's Teeth is a blog by fans and for fans, and we want to reflect as many voices as we can throughout the season. In fact, keep your eyes open for more information on how you can enter for a chance to win tickets to a future home match simply by submitting content that gets published as a post on the blog!

The next match will be Friday, and we'll be headed out to one of the local pub partners to watch the match and we'd love to meet up with some of you at the same time.