Friendly Fun - May 2, 2015

OK I like these International Friendlies. And Flavio, Phil, and company can bring the lovely supporters of Ponte Preta back any time as far as I'm concerned. While the score sheet says we won the match on the pitch, this match represented by far the most fun I've ever had tailgating with fans from the opposing club, and once you've experienced the warmth and enthusiasm of Brazilian soccer supporters, there's really nothing else quite like it.

Tailgate Traditions

So we learned from some neighbors in Lot A at the Toronto FC match that our little group is getting somewhat famous for "what will they do this time." Long-time readers may recall that we do a themed tailgate for each match, based on "grill the opposition." We find and create a recipe that reflects the city and culture of the visiting team. For the friendly, we continued that tradition... sort of. Now doing Brazilian food right takes a lot of time and effort, and one of my buddies suggested a place in Winter Park that already has that down to a fine art. We're talking about Nelore Churrascaria on the corner of Park Avenue and Lyman Avenue in picturesque downtown Winter Park.

Long-time residents of Orlando and tourists to the area may be familiar with an upscale chain restaurant on International Drive that first brought the concept of the Brazilian steakhouse to Central Florida, and Nelore is similar in concept, but much more intimate, cozy, and personal than its bigger, noisier, more corporate, and more commercial cousin.

On weekends, Nelore serves both lunch and dinner, and I recommend arriving before 3pm on the weekend to get the lunch price and avoid the dinner rush. Our group certainly can't claim extensive knowledge of Brazilian culture, but we knew enough to realize this is a place where you don't rush yourself, so we decided to meet at 2pm for lunch before heading to the stadium for the match.

Nelore has a nice salad bar with hot and cold selections, as well as the soup, side, and vegetable options. Mama always said eat your veggies, so I grabbed a salad plate and filled it with rabbit food, building a nice traditional dinner salad and topping it with my personal favorite bleu cheese dressing.

As we each munched on our salads, the helpful servers brought us drinks and explained the subtle chip signal used to alert the carvers that you are ready to try a cut of meat. For those who have never eaten at such a steakhouse, you receive what looks like a little poker chip that is red on one side and green on the other. Red means the carvers should pass by you and not offer a bite of whatever is on their skewer; green means you want them to stop and offer you a taste of what they've brought out from the kitchen.

And just what do they have to offer, you ask? A carnivore's dream come true, I tell you: a dream come true. Sausages, prime rib, bacon-wrapped steak, garlic infused steak, lamb, pork, and more. I tell you, this place could be a therapeutic haven for any vegan you know in need of a clinical intervention. I would try to tell you how good it was, but if I succeeded I would make myself so hungry I'd have to eat my own fingers. Yes... it really is that good. And the servers are all friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and social. We were all dressed in our matchday gear, and most had been following Orlando City and wanted our thoughts on the season so far, and shared their opinions on what the team could or should do to improve their record (just a helpful hint lads--the ball goes IN the net, not over the top)! And of course I already mentioned the atmosphere. It's a typical downtown Winter Park dining establishment: cozy, warm, elegant, and quiet.

After a couple of hours we finally pushed away from the table and practically waddled across the street to where we parked in order to make our way down to the stadium with filled bellies and hearts eager for some pre-match fun and hopeful to see a victory.

Stadium Tailgating

When we arrived at the stadium we opened up the coolers and had a few adult beverages. This week we had a growler from Hour Glass Brewery, more bottled beers from Orlando Brewing, some cider, and some water and gatorade. My buddy Chris, the adventurous one, also brought a bottle of some South American cane spirits (not Rum--this was something different) to help us get in the mood. We all sampled the spirits and started with some adult beverages before I grabbed a Gatorade and a water to be sure I wouldn't get too dehydrated, and we decided to go walk around the stadium to gauge the size of the crowd.

As we wandered around the East Side of the Citrus Bowl, we saw that the Mane Street area was set up but looked a little less full than usual. As we continued toward the southeast corner of the stadium, we spied a row of tents and a sizeable knot of people dressed in the classic white-and-black shirts and jerseys of Ponte Preta. Ever since I was a wee lad myself and the first soccer player I ever heard about was the immortal Pele, I've been a fan of "The Beautiful Game" a la Brazilian masters, and I was eager to learn more about Ponte Preta. About the only thing I knew of them was their claim to fame as the oldest continuously operating football club in Brazil, which I quickly learned had been founded on August 11, 1900.

As we entered the tailgate area, we were almost immediately met and embraced by opposing fans, saying how happy they were to be here and asking us all kinds of questions about Orlando City. Of course, Brazilian people have had a love-affair with Orlando that long predates the Orlando City club, with the major theme parks and the proliferation of shopping venues being a major draw. There are many times when the exchange rate makes it favorable for Brazilians to take shopping trips to the US, and Florida's relatively low tax rate and easy access by air from eastern South America make it a natural destination for a lot of tourists.

One family we met indicated that the presence of Orlando City gave them yet one more excuse to travel to a place they already love. The father and mother live in Campinas but maintain a vacation home in Port Orange. Meanwhile, their adult son lives and works in The Netherlands. When the family learned about the International Friendly, they decided it would make a great weekend trip to fly from Europe and Brazil to meet in Orlando and enjoy the match. The son also has a buddy originally from Seville in Spain that now lives in Tampa, and he had driven up to join the family for the match.

From these fans and others I learned much about the history of Ponte Preta. They tell the story that the stadium in which they play was built brick-by-brick by the supporters, which I took to mean that it was the supporters themselves who had helped to raise the money and invest in the construction of the stadium. I also learned that they consider Ponte Preta "the supporters' football club." I was also told that Ponte Preta has reached (and lost) the championship match in Brazilian football more times than any other club--the man telling me this said conspiratorially that the large and best-funded clubs in Brazil simply won't allow them to win. And finally, I learned (not surprisingly) that there's a Flavio da Silva connection. Apparently some years ago one of Flavio's Brazilian companies was the kit sponsor for Ponte Preta for a few seasons. 

There's also a rumor I'll try to follow up on at Coach Heath's radio show on Tuesday that on the 115th anniversary of Ponte Preta's founding (August 11, 2015), Orlando City is scheduled to play an International Friendly at their home stadium. I sincerely hope that is true, for our lads will be very fortunate to play for such a wonderful group of passionate fans.

One of the friends sitting with us for the match was a bit of a late arrival, so after some phone conversations I told him I would wait for him with the Brazilian tailgate contingent, and it turned out to be an auspicious decision, because I'm pretty sure I became something of an international TV star in Brazil.

There was a TV crew that came around filming the Brazilian tailgate, and when they did the big flags came out and the fans all rushed to get in position as they began singing and chanting their club songs. While I was planning to watch and enjoy this spectacle, suddenly I found several of my new Brazilian friends grabbing me around the shoulders and leading me into the very center of the front row of the mass of fans, singing, chanting, dancing, jumping, laughing, and completely swept up in the fun. In any case, they seemed to love the top hat and my Society XXI scarf was being shared with at least two Brazilian fans and myself, and we just had a blast. I have to admit it--these are my kind of people, and I would not feel overwhelmed nor be at all shy about having a reason to celebrate every day like that. Life's just too short to be a curmudgeon.

The Match

The Match itself was also a lot of fun. It was great seeing so many of the younger players we haven't seen on the pitch much before, and it's clear, even with the victory, we are very much still a work in progress as a squad. The first few set pieces for Orlando City found our lads in the middle out of position and unable to capitalize, and in the 12th minute Ponte Preta made us pay with a well-struck goal that got past the outstretched fingertips of Earl Edwards, Jr.

Then in the 32nd minute, Orlando City was called for a foul in the box, giving Ponte Preta a penalty kick. Rildo took the kick for the visitors, but he seemed to try too hard to fake out the keeper, and in the end his shot was saved by Edwards, keeping the game at 1 - nil. 

But in the dying moments of the first half, we had another set piece, served up by Eric Avila if I recall correctly, that found Bryan Rochez's forehead in perfect position and went into the back of the net for the equalizer.

In the second half, Orlando City pulled ahead in the 55th minute as Avila again received the assist, this time helping Sean St. Ledger score on a header to put the purple ahead 2 - 1. Not long after, Ponte Preta was awarded a free kick just outside the area in the 59th minute. Edwards lined up a huge wall and went far post to defend, but Renato Caja for the visitors struck a beautiful ball that looped over the wall and dove into the net near post.

As the match wound down, it looked like it would end in a draw, but in a reversal of the fortunes that Orlando City fans have come to witness, in the dying moments of the match it was Ponte Preta who suffered a mental lapse and committed a penalty inside the area when they brought down Cyle Larin, awarding a free kick to the home side. Larin himself took the kick, and struck it forcefully home, giving Orlando City a 3 - 2 victory.

Reflections

It's hard to know if we really learned anything from this match. One thing that was clear is that the match was much less physical than most MLS matches (and I presume less so than most Brazilian Serie A matches). All the same, there was a worrying moment when Kevin Molino went down and was taken immediately off the field and into the tunnel. As of this morning I haven't heard any specifics, and news outlets are reporting coach Adrian Heath is merely saying that Molino will be "evaluated" today--coach speak for "I ain't gonna tell you if my guy is hurt or not so my opponents will just have to keep guessing."

One positive thing I saw and will speculate upon is that Eric Avila may be a good option to take corner kicks. I know we like sending Kaka for that duty for his experience, but the trouble has always seemed to be getting the lads in the right place to receive the corner so they can do something with it. Avila seemed to be a little more successful getting them to line up correctly so the service could give a result, and it might be interesting to see what could happen if we let Kaka be on the end of an Avila corner into the box for a change.

Your Turn

What about you? What did you think of the match? Did you attend the match or watch it on TV? Did you have a chance to interact with any of the lovely Ponte Preta fans that came up for the match? We'd love to read about your game day experience.