Many things about the 2018 Orlando City season left fans feeling aggravated and disappointed with the club they so passionately love. Perhaps one of the most shocking was the decline of former Lions starting goalkeeper Joe Bendik. A fan favorite throughout his time in purple, things got so bad with Bendik that Head Coach James O’Connor eventually had no choice but to bench him.
Backup keeper Earl Edwards Jr. took over starting between the sticks, but O’Connor didn’t see what he wanted from him either. Third-string keeper Adam Grinwis closed out the 2018 campaign in goal, and quickly won the hearts of many a dejected City fan with his athletic, passionate play.
Once the off-season arrived, many of City’s most vocal supporters were quick to point out the position of goalkeeper as new signing priority No. 1. To no one’s surprise, Bendik was quickly cut, though a new keeper was signed just as quickly in Greg Ranjitsingh of O’Connor’s previous USL club, Louisville City FC. Newly hired Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi then infamously stated that the front office “wouldn’t be looking at a goalkeeper [as] our top priority right now.” Thus, fans fully expected the Lions to start the 2019 season with only the three keepers on the roster at the time — Grinwis (five total MLS appearances in his career), Ranjitsingh (no MLS experience), and Mason Stajduhar (the 2015 Homegrown signing who had yet to play any professional minutes).
Fast-forward to preseason camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton and — would you look at that? — MLS veteran goalkeeper Brian Rowe was reported to be training with Orlando City. Rowe spent six seasons with the LA Galaxy, where he had a career year in 2016, before playing for Vancouver Whitecaps FC in 2018. While certainly not in the same category as the Tim Howards or Nick Rimandos of MLS, Rowe had played over 6,000 minutes in 69 games, averaging right around a 70% save percentage prior to signing with Orlando City. Bringing in an experienced keeper for the trio of young, unproven guys to learn from was a smart decision, whether all of the fans see it as such or not.
When the lineup for this season’s first match against New York City FC published an hour before kickoff, Twitter and the rest of the internet lit up with criticism over Rowe getting the start in goal. A large majority of the cynics wanted to see the red-haired ninja Grinwis as the No. 1, with only a five-game body of work at the end of Orlando City’s worst season ever to demonstrate their reasoning. Unfortunately, Rowe’s Week 1 performance didn’t do much to calm those voices, as numerous fans blamed both of NYCFC’s goals on him. The assessment was unfair for a few reasons, not the least of which was the simple fact that it was the first time this group of Lions had played a regular season match together. Rowe may not have won that game for City, but he didn’t lose it single-handedly either.
The Lions traveled to SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, IL to take on the Chicago Fire in Week 2. Rowe was seconds away from keeping a clean sheet and helping the team secure its first three points of 2019 when center back Shane O’Neill decided to let CJ Sapong have a free header in the box that Rowe was entirely helpless to stop. Somehow, that wonderful group of fan critics seemed to blame both O’Neill and Rowe for that draw as well. Again, a clean sheet was seconds away. On the road. In freezing cold Illinois.
Week 3 meant more bad news for Rowe when the Montreal Impact visited Orlando City Stadium, although the goalkeeper faced 19 shots with 11 on target and managed to allow only three goals. Rowe deserved little to no blame for the shots that did get by him, and put in an outstanding performance to keep the Lions somewhat in the match. The Mane Land’s own Andrew Sharp awarded Rowe Man of the Match honors, saying he “did excellently to keep the score down, making several reflex saves and was confident coming off his line to collect crosses, through balls and closing down players to make saves one-on-one multiple times.” It should, however, be noted that the obvious weak spot in Rowe’s play has been his distribution, averaging a pretty poor 37.8% connection rate through the first four matches.
When City traveled to Harrison, NJ to face the defending Supporters’ Shield champion New York Red Bulls in Week 4, the fans finally did have the right to be nervous. The Red Bulls rarely lose at home and the Lions’ back line would be tested by Bradley Wright-Phillips, arguably the best forward in MLS. Thanks in large part to a couple of fantastic saves from Rowe, including a punch in the sixth minute that could have easily meant total devastation for Orlando City had it gone into the net, the team left Red Bull Arena with its first victory of the season. Sacha Kljestan’s incredible effort earned him Man of the Match honors and a grade of 8 from The Mane Land’s JGlash, with Rowe right behind at a well-deserved 7.5. Our David Rohe described Rowe’s goalkeeping perfectly in his five takeaways from the RBNY match: “He didn’t do anything flashy, but he was consistent and exactly what the Lions needed.”
We are all deeply invested, fervent, impassioned lovers of the Orlando City Lions. It is completely fine to be frustrated and angry when the team loses or draws matches it should have won. Demonizing individual players, even if they had a horrible game and gave up or caused goals, solves nothing. Brian Rowe is the quintessential example of why we as fans need to give the guys in purple the benefit of the doubt sometimes. No, he wasn’t a world-beater out of the gate, but he has improved every week and is proving to be dedicated to the crest on the front of his shirt. So let’s give the guy a break, eh?