"Wow--we should walk out of that stadium feeling like that after every match," one of my friends quipped as we left Orlando City Stadium after the 4 - 0 victory by the USMNT over Panama Friday night. All match we commented on the energy and enthusiasm that the host side displayed as they fought for their World Cup hopes in front of a sellout crowd of 25,303, the largest in Orlando City Stadium's short history. It would be nice to see that much passion, dedication, and skill displayed week in and week out by the MLS side that calls the same stadium home. Maybe Jason Kreis can force his players to watch game film of this match for the entire off season so they can see what a truly enthusiastic team looks like and how the fans respond to it.
Another nice touch for the match last night were the fireworks that erupted from the noise and weather shields hanging over the stands. Orlando City fans got used to pre-match fireworks at the Citrus Bowl from the on-field launchers in the previous two seasons, and we have missed seeing those this year. Flavio, Alex, and the rest of the Orlando City Front Office please note the crowd's enthusiasm for the fireworks and bring them back next season. Also, what the heck ever happened to the confetti cannons? We heard the excuses that they cost a lot of money to load and shoot off at the Citrus Bowl the previous two seasons when you were also paying rent to the City of Orlando, but we don't have to pay rent any more, so there's no excuse not to shoot them off for every goal by every home team to play in our new stadium. Bring 'em back!
The USMNT looked determined from the opening whistle. The team repeatedly pushed forward all match and created a number of great opportunities. The wunderkind Christian Pulisic opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a determined scramble to chase down a ball that was in danger of going out over the end line. With the narrowest sliver of angles, Pulisic found the ball and shot it past a defender and past the diving keeper into the far side netting of the goal. Then in the 19th minute Pulisic, fed a beautiful cross from the left side to the feet of a charging Jozy Altidore, who buried the ball in the back of the net to double the US lead.
And after going up 2 - 0 within the first 20 minutes, the USMNT kept the pressure high. Unlike Orlando City's MLS side who tends to retreat into a defensive shell while congratulating themselves for scoring, the national team kept applying pressure to Panama, pushing forward time and time again and never giving Panama a chance to get many quality chances to build an attack against Tim Howard's goal.
One of those attacks by Bobby Wood in the 42nd minute resulted in a yellow card foul by Panama's Armando Cooper in the penalty area, resulting in awarding the USA a penalty kick. Jozy Altidore took the ball and after forcing the Panamanian keeper to commit one way early, he just tapped the ball into the other side of the net to score his second of the match and give the USA a 3 - 0 lead. On this night Altidore soaked in and relished the adulation and love being showered on him by Orlando fans. That's very different to the reception he received the last time he was in our stadium in a red jersey scoring goals. On a personal note to Jozy, I want to remind him that scoring in our stadium wearing the correct jersey is always rewarded, while scoring in the wrong jersey always brings our disapproval. Please try to score in our stadium only when you are wearing the correct jersey, sir.
In the second half, Bobby Wood made up for several bad touches and missed chances by scoring a goal of his own in the 63rd minute from an assist by Paul Arriola. The much-maligned USMNT defense went on to register a clean sheet for Tim Howard, which was fitting while playing in the stadium that is home to the goalkeeper with the highest save total in MLS this season.
The game was also fun for our group of four, who played a special four-way edition of our Match-Within-the-Match game. There are three of us who control four season tickets for the MLS side and we play a version of "fantasy soccer" by each picking two players from the Orlando City lineup every match. When our player is involved in a score we get 3 points for a goal and 1 point for an assist. Last night our fourth friend decided he wanted to join in the fun, so we let him pick first and then used our MLS season standings to determine the order of the remaining picks.
|Pos.||Fan||Player||Goals||Assists||Pl Tot||Fan Tot|
Picking at 1 and 8 our buddy Gene was the only one who scored points with both of his players, while I was the only player to take a gamble by picking a player off the bench who may or may not see action in the match. Clint Dempsey eventually went into the game, but he was smothered (and at one point he was literally pinned to the ground by a WWE-style wrestling move) by the Panamanian defense and did not have a chance to earn any points for me.
This match-within-the-match competition gives us something fun to root for besides a simple victory for our team. Because the order of picks changes with our standings on the season-long competition table, it always gives the person in last place the first pick every week. Of course in a season like 2017 it's been rare that more than one of us scores points in any single match as the team hasn't been scoring very much. In fact, the 6 - 1 win over New England a couple of weeks ago was the only time that all of us scored points in the same match this entire season. It's a fun competition and we always have a steak dinner on the line for each season, where the winner gets treated by the other two players at a steakhouse of his choice at the end of the year.
If you want to try this same kind of friendly competition within your own game watching group, keep watching this blog in the offseason, as I will post a detailed set of rules for the competition before the 2018 season gets started again.
Outlook for World Cup
The win was a necessary step for the USMNT to continue their quest to go to Russia for the World Cup next year. With one more match left in the hexagonal qualifying round, the team are poised to lock up one of the top 3 spots with a victory next Tuesday over Trinidad & Tobago. The USA currently sits in 3rd place in the Hex on 12 points, two points ahead of Panama and 3 points behind Costa Rica. The team could finish as high as 2nd in the table if Costa Rica loses and the USA wins with a large enough goal differential to overtake Costa Rica.
If Panama draws or fails to win, then the USA result on Tuesday does not matter. But if Panama wins, then the USA must win or draw and hope that Panama does not win their match by 8 goals overtake the USA on goal differential. The upcoming test for the USA does not look as difficult on paper as Friday night's match against Panama: Trinidad & Tobago is 1 - 8 - 0 in the Hex after nine matches, scoring 5 goals and surrendering 18 for a -13 goal differential.
The final match of the Hex for the USA vs. Trinidad & Tobago airs at 8:00 pm EDT on Tuesday, October 10 on beIN Sports and NBC Universo. Let's hope that the lads give the USA fans another reason for celebration with plenty of scoring and another strong victory to propel them into the World Cup tournament next year.