As I write this, it's a beautiful Saturday morning, but the sun seems a little brighter, the air feels a little cooler, and the birds seem to be chirping a little more happily this morning. And it's all because of how the last 19 minutes of the Orlando City match unfolded last night.
Last night Orlando City hosted defending Eastern Conference champions New England, who came into the weekend also topping the table in the conference for this season. After the loss of Kevin Molino for the season with an ACL injury and given the recent home struggles of the club, the tailgate lot before the match was not filled with a lot of optimism for the outcome of the match last night.
All the same, our group continued our tradition of "grill the competition" tailgates, this time opting for some New England Clam Chowder from Lighthouse Seafood in Lake Mary. In addition to the food, we had beer and ale from both Orlando Brewing and Hourglass Brewery. We chatted with some of our Lot A tailgate neighbors and shared some of our chowder, which everyone proclaimed delicious. This time we really couldn't take much credit since we had bought the chowder pre-made, and simply heated it up for tailgating.
When the first half of the match kicked off, some of the concerns we had seemed to be validated. Orlando City seemed a bit disjointed on the possession, and New England showed why they are topping the table with some impressive passing, footwork, and turns of speed. It didn't take long for New England to begin testing and probing the shaky Orlando City defensive line, and in the 19th minute Charlie Davies scored on an assist from Scott Caldwell. As has been the case too many times this season, Caldwell and Davies were able to make the magic happen off of a bad giveaway from Orlando City, and Davies' powerful, low screaming shot just beat a diving Donovan Ricketts to find the back of the net.
To be fair to Orlando City, it seemed conceding the early goal did wake them up a bit, for they began taking more possession and pushed the ball deeper into New England territory. But something we noticed throughout the match--perhaps a difference from the youth of our team and the experience of New England--is how our wings tend to settle the ball when they receive it instead of doing touch passes to continue pushing the ball forward. By stopping the ball momentarily, it was giving New England's players a chance to close down and make subsequent passing attempts more difficult. Another thing we noticed during the match is that New England seems much more aggressive on the ball. They used their speed to intercept many long passes and break up possession, often halting or at least delaying an attack Orlando City was building.
In the final 25 minutes of the first half, it seems clear that we have found something special in the form of Eric Avila. As we saw in the friendly last weekend, Avila is very talented on delivering corner kicks into the right spot in front of the net. He had two or three corners in the latter part of the first half down in front of us in the north end zone. In every case, he delivered the ball at head height in front of the mouth of the goal, something that we have struggled to do in the first few matches of the season. None of those passes in were knocked home for a goal, but the ball was in a great position to give our players a chance to score. It was an encouraging sight heading into halftime, and we all hoped that Inchy could give the lads a good boost of confidence before returning to the pitch for the second period.
As the second half began, it was clear both teams had made some adjustments. New England looked to wrestle control of the match back early, but Orlando City countered, and quickly resumed their familiar possession dominance. But the team was still shaky on passes and looked susceptible on defense.
Then in the 71st minute Orlando City's inconsistency struck again. I'm a fan of all our players and I hate being critical of any of them, but this season Rafael Ramos is really showing his inexperience. The lad has talent in spades, but from time to time he just simply has lapses of good judgment. This was one of them. With New England's Kelyn Rowe sprinting toward him from behind, he attempted a gentle pass back to Donovan Ricketts near the top of the Orlando City area. Unfortunately, Rowe was closing at a pace faster than the pass back, and he arrived at the ball before Ricketts did, deftly tapping the ball away from the Orlando City keeper and then slotting it home for a goal, putting New England up 2 - nil with less than 20 minutes left in the match.
I have to be honest, it felt a little like Columbus all over again, where Ramos' mistake on defense triggered a veritable collapse of the team in a bad 3 - nil loss. But young Rafael quickly proved he has learned a few things about buckling down and pushing through adversity over the past few weeks.
Just a few minutes later, in the 75th minute, Ramos was on the ball just outside the New England area, and he passed a great ball in to Cyle Larin, who headed home a goal with authority to bring Orlando City to back within one of the lead. As far as I'm concerned, that shows me Ramos is on the right track. After all, every one of us who is human is going to mess up, and the measure of a great player is not how he errs but how he responds to adversity that is made from his own error. Yes it was frustrating that the previous error had led to a second goal for the opponent, but serving the assist in to help us score balanced the books on the young man's account.
There were two other things that I noticed in this match, especially in the final 20 minutes. To a certain extent, it has seemed like many of the midfield and forward players on the team have almost been waiting around and expecting Kaka and Brek Shea to pull some rabbit out of a hat somewhere to strike a goal and save the day. But in this match, it finally seemed like they woke up to realize how much attention these two bigger-name stars draw from the opponents, and the other 8 guys in purple decided that since they are wearing the same jersey it's OK for them to try to attack the goal as well.
The other thing I noticed is the reason that I feel so frustrated with the quality of MLS referees, and that has to do with our captain, Kaka. The man always seems to be so cool and confident and in control, but throughout this match, he was clearly hot at referee Ted Unkel. And it wasn't hard to see why. We all recall the suspect and dubious simulation calls that Orlando City suffered in the opening match of the season, but New England was getting fouls called against Orlando City players when Revolution players hit the deck for tripping over blades of grass. I won't say it's a clear case of bias against Orlando City, but I definitely think Unkel was influenced by the fact that New England is a veteran team leading the table in the conference. If there was any doubt on a call, he was going to rule in favor of the conference leaders and veteran team and against the expansion side. This clearly didn't go down well with Kaka, and I was genuinely afraid a couple of times he might get himself carded for arguing calls or questioning the referee's judgement. However, I think in soccer players can get away with quite a bit of arguing calls as long as they refrain from making personal attacks on the ref, and and I think Kaka is too cool a customer and too nice a person to get baited into insulting the referee personally.
But this showing of passionate emotion by Kaka seemed to rally the rest of the team, and after the first Orlando City goal the lads seemed to catch this energy and began attacking the ball and the New England goal much more ferociously. And in the 90th minute, magic happened again. This time it was long-time Orlando City fan favorite Luke Boden who served a great ball into Aurelien Collin in front of the New England goal. Collin hammered the ball off the bottom of the top bar and into the mouth of the goal to draw Orlando City level with the visitors.
The match ended with a tense five minutes of added time, most of which was spent in front of Orlando City's goal. Given the late game collapses in extra time that we've seen over the last couple of months, many of us were holding our breath hoping that there would not be a dumb penalty or bonehead foul committed. Fortunately when the foul came late in extra time, it was a foul called against a New England attacker, awarding Donovan Ricketts a goal kick. But even as the keeper moved to strike the ball and put it back into play, referee Unkel blew the whistle for full time, securing the draw and bringing us a much-needed point.
It's been clear since the start of the season that Orlando City is a squad that has plenty of talent. The main question has been how long it will take for the players to being acting as a team and not as a collection of individual players. Early season international call-ups and players battling injuries have made it difficult to find a consistent starting XI, and this has only added to the difficulty in finding consistency.
But after last night I'm starting to wonder if it hasn't been so much a question of familiarity as a question of emotional flatness with this team that has contributed to the slow start. With the display of Kaka's emotion last night and the energy and intensity that seemed to help infuse in the rest of the team, I think this may be a key for us going forward. There's been something of a spell that many of the younger players have seemed to fall under as they realize they're sharing the pitch with a player that many of them idolized as a youth. In the early part of the season, I think there was a sense that some of them had that suddenly Kaka would release his cape and fly around the field and make something magical happen. But with the venerable captain drawing so much attention from opposing players, it has really left many of our less well-known players with opportunities they have not been seizing. Perhaps pulling back the draw last night in the fashion that they did, without relying on Kaka to deliver an assist or score a goal was the bit of the psychological log jam that the team needed to break, and they may now all start finding their goal-scoring form more readily.
So this is why last night's draw feels like a victory. At least I hope that it will prove a victory and lead to better results throughout the balance of the season. Coach Heath still seems positive that a playoff spot is within the grasp of the team, and after last night, I'm inclined to say I agree with him.