Sunday was a perfect day for soccer in Orlando. The weather was beautiful and by mid-afternoon the tailgate lots around the Citrus Bowl were getting filled up with thousands of passionate fans who were ready to enjoy some good grilled food, adult and family beverages, and tailgate games with friends old and new.
The tailgate was a bit different from most for me, because I spent only a little time grilling with my friends and most of my time wandering to other tailgate lots in search of people that I was hoping to see, and in one case had a very interesting conversation with someone rather unexpected.
I recently added to my links a new podcast on the scene called the QueensCast. This is a podcast by a couple of ladies who want to build more communications and awareness around the Orlando Pride, the new NWSL Women's Soccer team that will begin play under the Orlando City umbrella later this season.
I set out to find them, and I was able to talk to Justina, one of the co-hosts, and Justus, the show's Engineer. Their show is off to a great start just a few episodes in, and they have some great plans in store that will help listeners really learn a lot more about the new team, the league in which they play, and a lot of the things that are really important to the players, the club, and a significant portion of the team's fan base.
I also ran across Orlando City President Phil Rawlins and his wife Kay in one of the tailgate lots mingling with fans. Now to many long-time fans this won't be a surprise: I've had several conversations with them over the years where they consistently remind fans that they fell in love with the game as fans themselves, and being fans is a big part of the passion that drives them in all the work they do with the club, the Orlando City Foundation, and the teams and players that are part of the Orlando City brand. During our conversation my friend and I learned that yesterday was their anniversary, and both Phil and Kay hoped that the team would be able to deliver a win for an anniversary present. I think Inchy and the lads got the memo, because they put on a clinic last night and made it a joyful time for almost everyone in the stadium.
And now on to the typical match wrap-up.
- Top of the Table, Baby! - After last night's win, Orlando City SC has vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference table. Sitting on eight points after four matches, they are two points clear of second place.
- Return of Kaka - The Captain played a beautiful match. He registered two assists (to Seb Hines and Brek Shea). He delivered a masterful set piece feed to fuel Seb's header, and he played two-man offense beautifully with Brek Shea to set up Brek's rifle-shot of a goal. Kaka also scored a goal of his own, and then later in the match he handed to PK ball to Kevin Molino along with encouragement and confidence that allowed the long-time Orlando City fan favorite to register his first MLS goal.
- Super Joe Bendik! - Yes, I was uncertain of Joe at season's start, but the game at NYCFC showed me he has some great potential, and last night he blocked a PK from one of the most prolific scorers on Portland's team. And it was no mere lucky guess--he blocked the PK with authority and it changed the momentum of the game. The PK would have drawn Portland back to within one at a time when Orlando City was leading 2 - 0. Instead the block maintained the margin on the lead, and I think it inspired the rest of the lads to keep putting the pressure on the offensive end of the field knowing that Bendik was going to be there to backstop any threats that the Timbers could mount throughout the rest of the match.
- Brek Shea's Goal - I alluded to it earlier, but this has to be a strong contender for MLS Goal of the Week. Brek passed the ball from the left side to Kaka who was in the center of the pitch above the six-yard box. Then Kaka fed the ball right back to Brek on the goal side of his defender. With his blazing speed and seemingly boundless energy, Brek closed on the ball and sent a booming sharp-angle shot from outside the left post that crossed the keeper and curled into the top right corner of the net. It was a thing of beauty and well-constructed by everyone involved in purple kits.
- Kevin Molino's PK Goal - Molino has been a fan favorite since USL days, and in the lead up to 2015 there were pundits across the league who thought Molino might have a great chance at being the MLS newcomer of the year and a great star for Orlando City. Unfortunately the injury that sidelined Kevin for most of the season prevented that from happening, but Orlando City managed to find a silver lining in that cloud by producing MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin. When Molino was taken down in Portland's box in the second half and the referee pointed to the penalty spot, everyone rushed to give the ball to Kaka. But Kaka went to Kevin, handed him the ball, and told him that he and the rest of the team had confidence in him and encouraged him to take the kick. Molino buried the goal and in the process registered his first score in MLS. Leadership by Kaka, great execution by Molino, and exuberance in the grandstands were all great parts of that moment.
- Aurelien Collin Played - I'm very glad we saw Collin on the pitch last night, though I'm not happy to see that it came as the result of injury to another player. I love Collin's fire, passion, enthusiasm, and the sheer joy he expresses in playing the game. I hope we get to see more of him soon, and not just because someone else may be hurt.
- Rafael Ramos' Poise - Rafael Ramos is another crowd favorite, and I enjoy watching the young man play. But last season it was sometimes painful to see him come unglued when a call would go against him or when he would take a hard foul from an opponent. It was clear Portland had the scouting report on him, because in the early going he took some very hard fouls that sent him to the ground. In 2015 those would have resulted in him leaping up, chasing down the offending player, and screaming until the referee would be left with no choice but to show Ramos a card. But not last night--he took the fouls professionally, and after the second time he got knocked to the ground, it was the offending Portland player that was shown yellow while Ramos simply coolly walked away. But you could see a determination and focus in his play for the rest of the match where he channeled all that emotion into making Portland pay on the scoreboard, and his defending was a large reason that the Timbers were held scoreless until the 89th minute.
- Attendance - Over 31,100 fans attended the match last night. That's quite good for a late Sunday night match considering the Orlando City fanbase demographics. Many of our fans have kids in school and work day jobs, meaning a late night out can pose a challenge for the next day. Perhaps Phil Rawlins and Flavio can take a cue from "The Boss" and have Kaka sign tardy passes for school-age fans after a late match.
- Timbers Army - Yes, I am giving props to the traveling fans. I said early in 2015 that I thought Seattle and Portland had set the bar pretty high in MLS in terms of fan support, and I also said that I hope Orlando City fans are able to push that bar even higher and that the fan bases across the league will be inspired to push each other to greater and greater levels of support. I won't claim that Orlando City's fan base is quite there yet, but I believe it's safe to say we've put the other fan bases in the league on notice that they can't simply rest on their laurels if they want to be considered among the best in the league.
- The Wall's Signage - Last night we played a prime-time, nationally-televised match against the defending league champions. I've seen The Wall come up with some amazingly creative, artistic, and beautiful TIFOs in the past, and I was expecting one for going head-to-head with the defending league champions. Instead there was a pretty basic PSA coming out against acts of terrorism. I am in 100% support of the message, but I'm disappointed that the supporter groups didn't go all in to create something that was as visually powerful and expressed their creative talents and passion for the game and also emphasized and supported that important message.
- Portland's Early Season Title Defense - Dear readers, can you tell I'm kind of grasping at straws here? There wasn't much to complain about last night's match as an Orlando City fan. It's a fact in sports that most of the time when a team wins a title, they become a target for every opponent in the following season, and everyone wants to give them their best game. It's also true that Portland has been bit with an early-season injury bug like the one that plagued Orlando City throughout the 2015 campaign. But after four matches, Portland have only amassed four points, and that is only good for ninth place in the West. That's not a great way to start a title defense.
- Tommy Redding with Concussion-like Symptoms - I mentioned before that Aurelien Collin was able to come in and play due to injury, and that's because Tommy Redding didn't start the second half. There were lots of injury delays in the first 45 minutes, including Tommy knocking heads with a Portland attacker in front of Joe Bendik's goal and going down pretty hard. After the halftime break, he did not come back on the pitch and Collin was subbed in instead. After the match Coach Heath indicated Redding had concussion-like symptoms and the doctors wouldn't allow him to continue playing. Hopefully full scans will show it wasn't as serious as that and Tommy won't have to miss any matches, because he has really started the season well and has been fun and impressive to watch.
- Cyle Larin Leaving the Match Early - Early on in the match, Cyle went down awkwardly near the top of Portland's 18-yard box when either one cleat dug into the turf or the other one went sliding out from under him. Almost immediately he got up and reflexively grabbed the back of his thigh, and from that moment on he seemed a bit hobbled, and he was definitely off of his normal pace. Coach didn't wait long, and in the 24th minute he subbed Cyle out and brought in Servando Carrasco. One good sign I noticed later in the match is that Cyle stayed on the bench and was not taken back to the locker room for the rest of the game. So I'm hoping that the move was one from an abundance of caution and does not mean there is a more serious injury that will impact his ability to play in upcoming matches.
- Nat Borchers' Beard - Seriously, this dude looks like he's a refugee from Weird Al Yankovic's "Amish Paradise" video. It looks like his beard was something made by a drunken albatross that couldn't quite figure out how all the twigs and sticks and vines are supposed to be woven together. Now I can say that Borchers could have an extremely cool-looking beard if he went full Viking and put it in two or three braids, complete with gold and silver rings and leather cords and sleeves that had ancient runes carved into them. Now that would be a fashion statement. But as it is, it just looks pretty stupid.
So what about you? What did you like or dislike about the match yesterday? Was there something I said that you agree with? Did I miss something or get something wrong? let me know in the comments section!