OCSC vs. POR: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

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.

The Good

  • 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 Bad

  • 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.

 

The Ugly

  • 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!

Kaka Returns, Tailgate Menu, and Match Stakes: OCSC vs. Portland Timbers

Tonight the Citrus Bowl will be the site of a prime-time clash between Orlando City SC and Portland Timbers. The match will be exciting for the home fans for several reasons, including a chance to retaining the undefeated streak, the return of Kaka, and the possible debut of the newest Lion on the roster.

Kaka Returns

Probably the biggest buzz around the game tonight is the return to the pitch of Kaka, who has missed the opening three Orlando City matches with what the club described as a "thigh strain" picked up in practice during the week before the match against RSL on March 6.

The club did well in Kaka's absence, earning five points and jumping to third place on the table in the East through games played on the weekend of March 18 - 20. Since then, Orlando City has not played any other matches, and the results have dropped us down to 4th place on the table, one point behind New England Revolution but with two games in hand over the Revs (they have played 5 games as of this morning, where we have played only 3).

It's also possible that tonight will see the debut of the newest member of the MLS roster for Orlando City, Julio "The Beast" Baptista. It's likely that Inchy alone knows at this point whether Baptista will be in the Starting XI for tonight or will even be in the 18 that are available for the match. I would be very surprised to see our new draftee Richie Lareya on the pitch tonight, since he played 90 minutes for OCB on Friday night. I suppose it's possible he will be dressed for the match and available as a sub, but I don't think it's typical for soccer managers to start players on only two days' rest.

Tailgate Menu

Moving on to the pregame activities, we have our tailgate menu set for tonight. Since we are playing Portland, our natural inclination was to think of seafood. Salmon was a big hit last year when we played Vancouver, and a friend of a friend who lives in Portland suggested that Salmon, eggs, beer, and donuts are all very popular foods in The Rose City. But unfortunately, only two of our 2016 tailgate group have mature palates, and the others are like picky teenagers and immediately turned up their noses at the idea of fish for today's match.

So we have modified the plan a bit. We have gone with... wait for it... hamburgers. Boring, right? Well, not so fast my friends. These are no ordinary burgers. We made our burger patties with a mixture of ground sirloin and ground chuck, and we mixed into the meat a generous amount of Dijon mustard, some minced garlic, some dried minced onions, some Pub Burger seasoning, and a little bit of spicy heat. I made ten of those patties at home, while another member of our group went to a gourmet meat shop in town and bought several pre-made burger patties that have different kinds of spices and seasonings in them.

To complement our burgers, we have been a bit more Portland authentic. We are bringing a half-dozen eggs and some shredded cheese (to go on the burgers for anyone that wants to live dangerously). And one of our other tailgate members is stopping by a local gourmet donut shop in Sanford to pick up several Maple-and-bacon donuts (a Portland classic) along with a variety of others. And of course we are happy to be bringing some beer from Hour Glass Brewery in Longwood, which is always a staple of our tailgate parties. And we will have water and Gatorade to be sure that nobody gets too dehydrated. Feel free to stop by Lot A any time after 4:30 pm this afternoon. That's about when we think we'll be there and ready to go for the tailgate and the match.

What's At Stake

Tonight's match is a very important one for Orlando City. I already mentioned that Orlando City is off to a good start on the season. A win tonight would be huge for the team, not only because it would mean beating the defending MLS Cup champions, but because it could continue an important streak. By finishing 1 - 0 - 2 in our March games, Orlando City became the only team in the Eastern Conference to finish the month without a loss. Now we all know that it's nearly impossible for even the best teams in the world to go a whole season without a loss. El Clasico showed us that yesterday, with Messi's Barcelona squad ending a 39-match unbeaten streak when they gave up a late goal to Cristiano Ronaldo and lost to Real Madrid. And of course MLS has a lot more parity than La Liga, and as proud as we are of Orlando City, I don't think you'll find many fans who believe we are as formidable a club as Barcelona--at least not yet. Give us a few more years and maybe...

But beating Portland could extend the unbeaten streak to start the 2016 season. Three points would also put us at the top of the Eastern Conference table, as Montreal, Philadelphia, and New England are all tied for the conference lead on six points, just one ahead of us. Last year, you recall that Orlando City had a breakout match with a 4 - 0 win over defending 2014 MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy at home, so it's not unprecedented for this team to get up for big matches against the top opponents in the league.

Having said that, I'm sure Portland will be coming into this match looking for a measure of revenge after the upstart Orlando City squad beat the Timbers 2 - 0 on their home pitch last season. So as I see it, Portland comes in as the champions and they will remain the class of the league until someone wrests the Cup away from them. Hopefully that can be our Orlando City Lions at the end of the season, but for now I'm treating this as the biggest test of the season so far for our lads.

Previews and Predictions

I haven't done match previews in the past, but I'm going to do one this week. If it goes well, I may start trying to do more in the future.

Players to Watch

  • Portland: Diego Valeri - Valeri is the top-ranked player for Portland on MLS Fantasy for 2016. Has played all but 3 minutes and scored one goal so far.
  • Portland: Fanendo Adi - Adi has played every minute of all three games for Portland this year, and has three goals to his credit.
  • Portland: Darlington Nagby - Nagby is off to a slow start this year. He has played every minute of the season but has no goals, and may be due for a big game.
  • Orlando City: Kaka - Tonight's match will mark Kaka's 2016 debut for Orlando City. He had a tremendous pre-season, setting up four goals in one match from corner kick deliveries. Hopefully he can provide a spark to help more goals start sailing into the net for our lads.
  • Orlando City: Cyle Larin - Cyle has a goal in every match so far in 2016. Can he continue that streak? Scoring a goal per match this season would guarantee that he would double his scoring from last season (17 goals).
  • Orlando City: Joe Bendik - Bendik came up huge in Orlando City's last match at NYCFC, where he recorded six saves as the potent NYCFC offense peppered the goal with shots and was turned away every time. On the one hand, I hope our defense plays well enough that Bendik doesn't have to face that many shots. On the other, I hope he keeps up his tremendous form and can come out of the match with another clean sheet tonight.

Prediction

Orlando City enters the match on five points, scoring 1.67 points per match; meanwhile, Portland comes in with four points, scoring only 1.33 points per match. Portland also comes in out of the playoff picture, managing only ninth place in the Western Conference, while Orlando City is in fourth, as mentioned earlier. A win could vault our lads to first place in the East, while a win for Portland could at best put them in a four-way tie for 4th place in the West.

But of course the biggest advantage for Orlando City tonight will be the home crowd. Our lads will be playing in front of the raucous Citrus Bowl crowd, led by The Wall and fueled by 30,000 other screaming, passionate fans. Playing in the Western Conference, Portland is no stranger to large and loud opposing crowds, having to play at Seattle every year. But Portland also has the time change and travel to contend with for this match, and I think those factors tilt the balance in favor of the home side.

My prediction is a 3 - 1 win for Orlando City. I see Cyle Larin continuing his scoring streak, as well as Kaka contributing at least one assist off of a set piece. For the visitors, I think Nagby gets himself on the score sheet for the season. 

What do you think? Do you believe Orlando City can continue the unbeaten streak and jump to the top of the Eastern Conference? Or do you think the defending MLS Cup Champions will get back on championship form after their bye week and start pressing toward defending their championship crown? Let me know in the comments below!

On the Road to El Clasico in Barcelona!

Buenos Dias, Orlando! I am so glad that the Orlando vs. Portland match is not happening until 8pm Sunday night because I'll be able to clear Customs and make it to the match after my red-eye flight from Frankfurt. My plane back home leaves at dawn Sunday morning, Orlando time, and it should be about 5:30pm by the time I'm able to leave the airport and head to the Citrus Bowl.

Some might say it's not the most prudent way of spending part of a five-digit Florida Lottery windfall from a ticket that almost hit the jackpot, but I decided to take a few days off work and make a soccer pilgrimage to Camp Nou in Barcelona to see "El Clasico" in person this weekend. And with some transit logistics I worked out with a private car company to get from the stadium to the airport, I was able to find a connecting flight to Frankfurt and a non-stop back to Orlando that will let me take in our match on Sunday night as well.

On Thursday night as I strolled through the streets of Barcelona near the famous and hallowed grounds of the stadium, I was feeling a little hungry. I decided to try my luck and see if I could find a table for one at one of the local eateries. Da Paolo on Avenue de Madrid had been recommended as a good Italian restaurant, so I decided to check it out. I thought I was going to have a nice quiet meal and then go strolling through the streets some more as the Barcelona nightlife really began to hit its full stride, but something happened at dinner that sent me straight back to my hotel and to the computer, because I may have uncovered the biggest scoop in global futbol in the last fifty years--and all by complete happenstance.

I was seated at a table near an empty corner booth--the kind with the single curved bench that allows a group to sit around the table--and about ten minutes later as I was buttering some delicious Italian bread, I saw three gentlemen enter the establishment. They stood out because of the fact that they were trying so hard to be unrecognizable. All of them wore long trench coats, fedoras, dark glasses, and what looked to me like fake wigs and mustaches. The wigs and mustaches made them look like men past their middle years, with salt-and-pepper hair and graying whiskers, but they walked with the gait of younger and more athletic men than their appearance would lead a casual observer to believe.

I know little Spanish and even less Portuguese (I have not studied any of Brazil's native tongue, but I have spent some time around Brazilian colleagues and friends to pick up a few words), but it was clear the three men were speaking in a mix of English, Spanish and Portuguese, which led me to believe that they did not all share a native tongue. When they sat down, three smart phones came out, and my ears perked up at the mention of a name that I heard one of them say, "Rikki." Over the past eighteen months or so I've become so accustomed to hear Coach Heath use that name to talk about our Orlando City MLS Captain, Kaka, that I automatically start paying attention when someone says the name nearby. I guess it's a sort of blogger's "sixth sense" that begins to kick in when you think you might be hearing something about a topic that you think about so often, as I think about our beloved soccer club.

It was clear the three men were excitedly talking about something, and soon I realized that one of them was reading or paraphrasing a message he had received on his phone. The jist of it was that someone named "Rikki" had sent him a message, apparently inspired by a report in an American sports news outlet quoting LeBron James. Recently, James mused in an interview about "putting the band back together" as it were, and wishing that he could find a way to get himself, Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony all in the same city on the same team to play together more often than just during the occasional US National Team friendly game and the Olympic basketball tournament.

As I listened further, it was clear that this "Rikki" had reached out to all three of the men in the booth, and they were discussing, with all the enthusiasm of excited schoolboys, how perhaps they could fulfill a dream along with their fourth friend that would all let them spend time together. "Sheet!" one of them finally said, dropping his fist on the table with a thud. "Thees ees the only way! LeBron and Carmelo have the Olympicos... we cannot even have that!"

I looked over toward the booth, trying to appear casual about it, but you can imagine my astonishment when the man sitting closest to me took a drink of his water, only to have his fake mustache stick to the glass. All three men had their sunglasses off in the darkened restaurant, and when the man turned toward me to grab the mustache from the glass, I saw those unmistakable deep set eyes, and it was all I could do to keep from choking on my beer. I was looking straight into the face of Lionel Messi!

The man beside Messi threw his head back and laughed at the fact that his friend had lost part of his disguise, and the warm brown eyes and boyish grin of the man could only ever belong to one man--the unmistakable Neymar da Silva Santos Junior. The third man in the booth, sitting across from the other two, broke into a grin as well, and even with his mustache in place, the high cheek bones, strong nose, and matinee idol good looks could only belong to one man: Cristiano Ronaldo. I covered my gaping mouth with one hand and set my beer down before I dropped it, stunned to see three of the world's most amazing athletes sitting not ten feet from me.

Messi quickly grabbed his fake mustache while he tried to cover the lower part of his face with one of his hands, but I could see his cheeks redden a bit as he saw me staring right at him. He pointed to my purple Orlando City home kit that I was wearing and he waved me over with two fingers. "Vengas aqui, Orlando City," he said.

The man didn't have to ask twice. I am very lucky that no patrons or servers were trying to walk between our tables at the time because I would have sent either them or myself sprawling as I leaped from my seat to join the three men at their table. In my halting Spanish and their broken English the three confided that indeed they had all received messages from Kaka musing about the possibility of forming the most elite lineup in global soccer history by coming to play together with him, Cyle Larin, Brek Shea, and the rest of the club in Orlando. "Es imposible," I protested when I realized what they were contemplating. "M-L-S no tiene el dinero!" I pointed out.

"Bah!" Messi said dismissively. Waving a finger around the table he continued, "Tenemos todo el dinero por la vida," he said. "We want fun! Disney World!" he said.

"Universal!" Ronaldo added, nodding.

"Daytona 500!" Neymar said excitedly, lending credence to my personal belief that motor sports and futbol are the twin passions of every Brazilian.

Over the next two hours, I shared a meal and got autographs that I will treasure forever from the three icons of global sport. And because I was traveling on found money, I even convinced them to let me pick up the tab for all of our dinners, which worked out to be about 200 Euros since none of them were drinking anything but water within 48 hours of an important match.

They shared lots of stories--most of which I couldn't understand--and I could never tell if the three of them had been convinced by our Captain that Orlando should indeed be the home for the most amazing lineup of club soccer that any city had ever experienced. But I did learn that all three men consider purple their favorite color, and that they all thought the Orlando City kit looked good, even on me! So, my fellow Orlando City fans, I think we may have reasons to be encouraged.

And of course, everyone should feel encouraged today--encouraged to share this story and share a smile with everyone you meet. Because you must remember this post is going live on a very special day...

Happy April Fool's Day, 2016!