In Orlando City’s earliest Major League Soccer days, a match-up against the Columbus Crew was a calendar-circling-worthy event. Last night, as the Lions took on the Crew at Mapfre Stadium, the game felt like just another encounter in the midst of a rough season for Orlando.
In so many ways, it wasn’t meant to be that way at all. For no apparent reason beyond a bit of scheduling and some competitive chippy games, Orlando and Columbus began a minor rivalry. In their first game, on April 18, 2015, Orlando City came into Ohio with a 2-2-2 record including a big win away to the Portland Timbers. The game was tightly contested until Federico Higuaín scored in the 32nd minute and a reactionary foul from Rafael Ramos changed the game, which saw the final score end up 3-0.
The second match-up was in Orlando on May 30. Another red card changed this game, with Michael Parkhurst being sent off in the 16th minute and Kaká scoring from the spot to tie the game at one apiece. Orlando City forever nemesis Kei Kamara found the net in the 61st minute, infamously antagonizing the Iron Lion Firm and Ruckus end of the Citrus Bowl with an “I can’t hear you” celebration. Orlando had the last word as Brazilian Pedro Ribeiro found the back of the net in the 89th minute with a rocket from distance to tie the game.
Two games in, two red cards, seven goals, plenty of controversy, and a ton of personality all contributed to stoking a bit of an early rivalry. Orlando supporters were eager to engage in league-wide banter to prove our legitimacy, while Crew supporters were more than willing to show the new team no hospitality. While these MLS originals weren’t going to offer Orlando City’s team or supporters any quarter, they did in their engagement provide the legitimacy many of us were hoping for. We’d picked a fight with a traditional powerhouse, and they fought back.
I’m always reminded that it was the bitter vitriol of Columbus Crew fans that taught me how to use the block function on Twitter. Interestingly, in the midst of these back-and-forth engagements about the legitimacy of red cards and the relevance of Ohio vs. Florida, I also managed to engage with a lot of Columbus Crew supporters who I still talk to to this day.
The budding rivalry was aided by fate, as Orlando drew the Crew at home in the U.S. Open Cup, winning the third match-up, 2-0 on goals from Kaká and Carlos Rivas.
With a win apiece and one tie, game four felt like a supporter’s must-win. The Lions hadn’t won in four games, and were coming off a 5-3 drubbing in the Bronx from our other potential early rival, New York Ctiy FC. Orlando’s win against the Crew had been chalked up to a “weakened” side for the Open Cup. To win this early rivalry and attempt to get the season back on track, the Aug. 1 meeting felt monumental.
And after an early Higuain goal made it look like it wouldn’t be Orlando’s night, the men in purple started pouring in the goals. Cyle Larin scored twice, while Darwin Cerén, Aurélien Collin, and Cristian Higuita all added one to make the final scoreline 5-2.
I remember walking out of the stadium that night and talking with my friends, thinking that two things were inevitable. First, that the Lions would indeed make the playoffs and second, Orlando would end up playing the Crew at some point. It felt fated at that point.
You know the rest of the story, City missed the playoffs by three points and the Crew went on to finish second in the East and lost in the MLS Cup final to the champion Portland Timbers.
After an interesting set of opening salvos, many of us in Orlando had high hopes of a continued back-and-forth with the Crew. Orlando has struggled against the Ohio team, managing only two ties against now four losses since 2015. The Anthony Precourt mess in Columbus has dampened the enthusiasm from Crew fans as there is a cloud of uncertainty over the team’s proposed move to Austin, TX.
Last night’s heartbreaking 3-2 loss, with a late controversial penalty call for the Crew and rocket goal by Wil Trapp, felt a bit like the games played in 2015. If Orlando City can win some games and make the playoffs, if Columbus can rally to #SaveTheCrew, then maybe this series can ignite again.