As we count down to the new year of 2017 — which will be Orlando City SC's third in MLS and second in the NWSL — and say goodbye to 2016, it's time to look back at the club's 10 best moments of the year.
Here it is. This is our staff pick for Orlando City’s best moment of 2016. It seems we’re not the only ones who think the club’s response to the Pulse nightclub shootings is worthy of being named the year’s best moment. Orlando City did everything in its power to put the community first and help lead Central Florida through a difficult first few days of healing after the deadliest single-shooter incident and largest hate crime in U.S. history took place on June 12. In all, 49 people lost their lives and 53 others were wounded for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
The club showed its leadership in the community for several days, culminating in its first home game and the first major sporting event in the city since the tragedy. The Lions conceded a last-gasp equalizer to the visiting San Jose Earthquakes in the 2-2 draw at Camping World Stadium on June 18, but the entire game served as a celebration of togetherness, community, humanity, and decency, as well as a public defiance of terrorism, hatred, bigotry, and intolerance.
As I wrote that night:
The night began with a huge ovation for the first responders and an emotional National Anthem, sung by a crowd that somehow managed to stripe the stadium in rainbow colors with just a few days notice. The Pulse shooting victims' names were displayed on the giant video screen and advertising boards. And then there was a soccer game.
The match on the Camping World Stadium pitch was more or less secondary, although the 37,194 fans — the club’s second-largest crowd of the season, behind only the season opener vs. Real Salt Lake (60,147) — saw a heartbreaking late goal by Shea Salinas in the fourth minute of stoppage time pull the Earthquakes level. If only referee Robert Sibiga had been a little quicker with the whistle after what was to be at least three minutes of stoppage, it would have been a storybook ending. After all, Julio Baptista put his side ahead in the very first second of stoppage with this stunner:
Camping World Stadium went crazy for Baptista’s would-be game-winner. The magnitude of letting that lead slip away wasn’t lost on the players, who collapsed in exhaustion and despair after the final whistle, or on then-Head Coach Adrian Heath:
"Obviously bitterly disappointed with the way that it's finished," Head Coach Adrian Heath said after the match. "I don't think I ever wanted to win a game of football more in my life than tonight for the obvious reasons. The players are absolutely distraught in there and I feel for them. They worked really, really hard."
Still, despite the result, the match served as a catharsis for thousands of Orlandoans and illustrated the heart of our club. From the #OrlandoUnited t-shirts to Heath’s black armband, to the rainbow flags in the stands and striping of the stadium, that June night was more than a game of soccer. It was about our city standing together and how our soccer club helped make that happen.
As such, it is a worthy recipient of our choice for best Orlando City moment of 2016.
We hope you have enjoyed our series on Orlando City's top 10 moments of 2016. Check out the rest of our top 10 here:
9. Orlando City signs Antonio Nocerino and Julio Baptista.
8. MLS Commissioner Don Garber looks on as the first seats are installed in Orlando City’s new downtown soccer stadium.
7. Orlando City kicks off the Jason Kreis era with a victory over New England.
6. Orlando City dismantles defending champion Portland, 4-1.
4. Orlando City B makes the playoffs on the last day of the season.
3. Frantic finish seals comeback for Orlando City on opening day vs. Real Salt Lake.
2. Orlando Pride set an NWSL attendance record and won first game in franchise history.