Apparently I still have a lot to learn about soccer. And that's OK--I've not ever come to this blog selling myself as an expert on the sport, but as an eager fan, hungry for more knowledge and inspired by the glorious wonder of watching maestro Inchy on the sidelines as he conducts his orchestra on the pitch toward ever more sublime notes of harmonic bliss. We've seen great performances from the lads before, with USL Pro Cup wins in 2011 and 2013, and playoff appearances four years in a row.
But in a rough pre-season filled with shuffling lineups and questionable defensive showings from time to time, it was unclear whether the success from the previous league would easily translate to the MLS level. For instance, in the recent Carolina Challenge Cup preseason tournament, I thought I saw something. When we played fellow expansion side NYCFC, the match was a draw as both squads had rosters composed of players who had not spent much time together as a unit. And then in the final match of the competition, the Houston Dynamo--a side that has made the MLS playoffs seven of the nine seasons they have been in Houston and won two MLS Cups along the way--thrashed a dismayed-looking Orlando City squad 3 - nil.
There you go, I thought. That's the difference between a side that's largely intact and used to playing together and a side that's integrating at least 14 new players in the first 18 and only retained eight players in total from their previous season. And while I hoped for a closer match on Friday evening I was uncertain how much better the squad would have jelled after seeing a repeat of the one all draw with NYCFC in Orlando on Sunday. Shows you how much I have left to learn...
Since the team were on the road, I broke out my "road kit" today for the viewing party, opting for the alternate jersey that was unveiled a couple of weeks ago at the Soccer and the City event. But when I got to the watch party at City Pub member Liam Fitzpatrick's in Lake Mary, Florida, I found most fans bedecked in purple and pretty soon it became apparent from the twitter feed that the team would be arrayed in their traditional purple kits for the match tonight. That was a bad sign, I thought. From 1500 miles away I was messing with the team's mojo and imperiling their chances with my discordant sartorial selection. Bollocks!
When the match got underway, I continued being nervous. From my vantage point, the creamsicle-clad Dynamo seemed to bivouac through the Orlando City end of the pitch far too often for my liking. My subconscious registered and some of my table mates commented on the fact that Orlando CIty's defense did not have the same kind of breakdowns they seemed to suffer in the previous meeting with Houston, but all the same it felt like it was taking our lads way too long to clear the ball out from the area after a Houston attack would stall, and through the opening 45 minutes I was having a hard time giving our players credit for building possessions of their own and taking the attack deep into the Dynamo area to produce quality shots on goal.
Oh, the first half saw shots and moments for the side clad in royal purple to be sure. Carlos Rivas sent an exploratory shot high and outside within the first 20 minutes, and in the 33rd minute Molino drew a free kick for Orlando City just outside the area as he forced Houston's Sarkodie into a hard foul that saw the Dynamo Defender booked by the referee.
On the sidelines, our maestro tapped his baton for quiet and bade his virtuoso Kaka the Magnificent step up to take the kick. Like a skilled carpenter measuring twice and cutting once, Kaka smote the ball over the Houston wall and down toward the gaping and hungry mouth of Houston's goal in a kick that was pure artistry. Unfortunately, Tyler Deric heroically made what well may go down as the save of the weekend if not the save of the month, leaping to his right and getting just enough hand on the ball to deflect it over the top of his goal. It was hard to watch such an artistic shot not find the back of the net, but one had to admire the keeper's grit and athleticism in preserving the clean sheet at that point in the match.
The half ended with the match still scoreless, and when asked by someone at my table for my inexpert observations, I replied that I liked how Molino was harrying and harassing the Houston defense with such courageous runs and that Kaka's free kick was a thing of beauty. But I was concerned by what I thought I was seeing in a lapse of possession and a defense that felt insecure to me. Perhaps I've grown up too much steeped in the ebb and flow of college football games, but the longer a contest goes without my team putting separation between itself and the opposition, the more I feel anxious that any single play could swing the momentum away and thus snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. When my team is behind or not leading the game, I tend to fret over the chances I see the other squad having to pounce on opportunity and surge into the lead instead of recognizing the positives I see playing out before me.
Someone else at the table decided to consult a true expert and looked up some statistics being kept by one of the major sports analytics sites online. It reported that Orlando not only had the edge in possession percentage but also in shots on goal. I ruminated over that news for the remainder of halftime and ultimately decided that repeating Sunday's feat of achieving a draw on the road would be a good result, and I hoped that we would see the second half played more in Houston's end of the pitch than our own.
The half started promisingly, as Lewis Neal sent a grass-scorching rocket just wide of glory that slid beyond the right post of the Houston net that seemed to be growing hungrier to swallow the ball with each passing minute. By now, I was seeing that our lads were starting to build effective exploratory campaigns into the Houston end of the field and were finding ways to exploit gaps in the home side's defense that was making Tyler Deric work much harder and more often to keep his team from falling behind than was his counterpart, the stately and venerable Donovan Ricketts in our goal.
A short time later in the 65th minute, another adventurous Orlando City attack orchestrated by the marvelous Captain himself nearly netted glory for the team. From midfield, Kaka raced down the left side of the pitch with pinpoint dribbling to his own feet that let him fly at full speed. As he neared the corner of the Houston area, a Houston defender with a head of steam attempted a slide tackle to knock the ball off of Kaka's feet, but somehow the tackle missed. Not only did Kaka manage to slide the ball beyond the reach of his opponent, but he leaped over the Dynamo man in an arc that combined the epic flight of Michael Jordan, the innovative clearance of Dick Fosbury, and the artistic grace of Mikhail Baryshnikov. With nobody left to beat but the hard-working Deric, it seemed that for the second match in a row, our hero would strike glory.
But urgency, emotion, or perhaps just a simple sudden surge of selfishness doomed the chance. Our Captain had a poor angle as he approached the edge of the goal, and after checking up to try to set up his shot, the best he could do is ricochet the ball off of the Houston keeper before it flew back into Kaka and then deflected across the end line for a goal kick. Once again, Tyler Deric had come up with a courageous save, and once again his goal went hungry, its pangs to taste the leather of the ball seeming to grow more urgent now as it begged to be fed.
Now there's another tactic in soccer I don't like. As a novice fan it's something that seems dangerous and even somewhat foolhardy to me, but I've yet to watch a whole match where both teams don't do it at least several times. The tactic I mean is when the back line of a side plays the ball back to their own goalkeeper. Almost every time the tactic seems harmless enough as the keeper then passes the ball on to yet another teammate or cannons the ball beyond the midfield line.
And then the Maestro's magnum opus for the night was revealed in his first substitution. Rivas was subbed out of the match for Pedro Ribeiro. Fewer than ten minutes after the close chance by Kaka, Ribeiro showed for once that a concern I've had for a long time is not only valid, but can be exploited by an enterprising and crafty player filled with the courage of youth and powered by the fresh legs of a recent substitution onto the pitch. In the 74th minute, as one of Houston's defenders played a ball back to Tyler Deric, Ribeiro turned his trot toward the opposing keeper into a sprint, and closed the distance down on the ball almost before Deric could reach it. The result was a relatively weak kick by the Houston keeper that caromed the ball off of the Brazilian's legs and set it at his feet with nothing between him and the wide open Houston net but the early evening air and the co-mingled anxiety of every Houston fan and the urgent hopes of every Orlando City supporter.
As Ribeiro surged ahead, the Houston keeper spun and draped an arm across his neck, grabbing and pulling at him bodily to try to prevent him from being able to reach the ball for a try on goal. But the Orlando City attacker lunged forward and seemed to knock the ball off his head and it began a bouncing, bumbling, stumbling, rumbling journey toward the back corner of the net. On came Ribeiro and Deric as well, seemingly locked in an awkward and uncomfortable dance to try to keep from falling to the turf. And then suddenly all three were piled in the back of the net: the ball, the Houston keeper, and the Orlando City attacker alike.
For a heartbeat I had a flashback to the match on Sunday where Josh Saunders appeared to drop a save and then surrender a goal as he lay bleeding on the turf of the Citrus Bowl, a goal that was disallowed by the referee for a foul called on another Orlando City player. At first I worried that the fickle finger of fate was wagging before my eyes again, making me witness a repeat of that harsh ruling.
But in an instant, anxiety was replaced with rapture as the score line changed to show Orlando City ahead. Cries of GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL! rang out in the pub and streamed out across the twitterverse as glory descended on the pitch and bathed each Orlando City player and passionate purple-clad fan with her warm and healing light that lifts the soul and soothes the heart. Wellsprings of joy flowed up to paint smiles on every face around us, and filled the air with joyous cries as fans exchanged high fives, hugs, chest bumps, back slaps, and tears of sweet relief. The ecstasy of emotion swept through us and we celebrated in the way that only true fans can ever experience.
And even as the celebrations began to subside and people started catching their breath, I found myself willing the clock to tick down the remaining quarter of an hour at breakneck speed. Each time that Houston sent the ball across midfield and into Orlando City's end, I found myself yelling at the TV for the lads to clear the ball back toward the Houston goal. And each time orange jerseys drifted down into the area in front of the Orlando City goal I felt the tension rise and my heart leap into my throat.
Mercifully, regulation time elapsed, and then the three minutes of added time ticked away from the clock as well, and the referee blew the final whistle to signal the sweet savory taste of victory! The pub erupted again, perhaps in cheers even louder than for the goal that put us ahead. I grabbed my phone and tweeted out the first thing that came to mind. "We win! We win! We win!" I sent, and was rewarded within moments by seeing it favorited and retweeted a number of times.
Nothing that one can do in public while fully attired feels quite as good as winning, and it's a feeling that I know we Orlando City fans have been spoiled to expect and enjoy often over the past few years. I was not sure how soon it would be that we experienced that feeling again after the move up to MLS, but I'm glad it's come so soon.
As I said at the top I still feel like something of a novice fan, uncertain how to judge the quality and depth and cohesion of our side enough to have a confident read on their collective strength. I do know that we have some brilliant individual talents on the squad and that each was selected by the Maestro for their unique strengths and his vision that they could combine into a superior and sublime side with the potential to pick up in 2015 where last year's squad left off.
Tonight we saw some of that promise on display. I hope this is a sign of more good things to come, and I'll do my part to coax and cheer and urge the lads on to more and more victories. And regardless of whether that energy and emotion expended is rewarded with more thrilling victories, or if it leaves me spent and broken-hearted in the rubble of a stormy season of struggles, I'll always know that you are here--you, my fellow fans. We rise together in victory, and we pick each other up after defeat, because that's what fans do. That's what being a fan is all about.
Now it's your turn. Tell me about your view of the match? Did you experience the same roller coaster of emotions as me, or were you watching with wiser eyes and greater confidence than my novice nature permitted me to share?