If you were there, you were either a part of something magical, or watched the magic take shape. It started as a trickle, and culminated in a sea of bodies flowing past, through, and around the boundaries and guides that tried to maintain some semblance of order, only to yield to growing surge of excitement and anxiety. I feel sorry for fans who weren’t able to attend Wednesday’s emotional roller coaster, not just because of the rush to the south end, but because of everything else.
Wednesday night matches always seem to be tough on fans. Thankfully, my work situation is pretty darn flexible, so making it to a match during the week usually does not pose much of an issue for me. I know way too many people that have the opposite issue, and no level of planning can help them make kickoff, let alone the match. This problem then gets even more difficult when it is an “unscheduled” match, and by that I mean a match that you only know about a few weeks in advance, but due to this being a semifinal match for the U.S. Open Cup, I had more acquaintances than not pull some strings to make it to the stadium.
For the Cup matches, I have not been purchasing seats where I normally sit for regular-season play. I decided this season to join a few friends in The Wall and do my absolute best to jump, sing, yell, and bounce for 90-plus minutes behind the north goal in support of the Lions. I know most of the chants, and the ones I do not I can fake and clap along to so that I am still helping to bring the noise. My good friend hops into the capo stand, and I cannot help but jump a little higher, yell a little louder, and sing a bit more as the match progresses through the first half. To say that the first half was tense would be an understatement.
The first 45 minutes were hard to watch, not because of the endless chants and song, but because the Lions looked more tense than the fans felt. You could sense a bit of anxiety from The Wall, but it was a positive feeling, not one of doom and gloom. The Lions had a few chances in those first 45 minutes, but spent a little too much time trying to gain their feet and truly settle into the match. Can you blame them? Very short rest, another drastic starting XI change, and the weather looked to want to delay kickoff yet again.
During halftime, I found myself and my friend on the back terrace, behind The Wall, talking to folks. The mood was contagiously positive. Everyone seemed to think that this match was inevitably going to go the Lions’ way. The boys held strong for 45 minutes, they did not give up a goal in the first 15 minutes, and they obviously were starting to find a rhythm in the waning moments of the first half. I heard no complaints, I heard nothing negative, and most importantly I saw a mass of people hyping each other up to prepare for something that everyone felt was about to happen.
It only took 16 more minutes of play for bedlam to erupt when Nani’s cross was headed in by Chris Mueller. This is where things got a little dicey. The mood shifted a bit to one that was a little more nervous, and rightfully so. Folks around me could sense the shift in play as NYCFC started to appear more and more dangerous in possession, but the Lions did well to not allow the visitors many good chances. And then it happened. The Cardiac Cats got Cardiaced when what looked to be a rather easily defended cross — one that could easily have been the last run of play in the match — not only found its way to the grass, but found its way to the grass right in front of Maxi Moralez, who slid to make contact and the ball found its way into the net. At this point, you would have expected the stadium to just deflate.
I am here to tell you, through my first hand experience, that not only did the stadium not have the wind knocked out of it, it got louder and more energized. An extra 30 minutes of bouncing and singing is not big deal, but that extra time for the players was going to be grueling, and everyone knew it. The energy level went through the roof — well it would have if Exploria Stadium had one — and never stopped. It was as if everyone was channeling their energy towards the boys in purple, to help lift them up, not as a distraction or as an intimidation towards NYCFC. It just kept building and building for all of extra time, never hearing doubt or worry, just pure unabashed love for what we were all witnessing.
And then it went dead quiet for a fraction of a second as the stadium realized that not only was 30 minutes of extra time up, but that the Lions would be kicking first in the spot kicks at the goal on the south end of the stadium — the end opposite The Wall.
We all know what happened next. Nothing was going to stop us from filling those seats behind the goal and being a part of that moment with the club. It was a special thing to do, consequences be damned, to rush the open area behind the goal and let the away team, regardless of who it was, know that there is no escape from us. The coin flip may have given them some solace for a moment, but the resiliency, grit, and determination of this fan base will look fate in the eye and loudly let it be known that we are always behind this club, regardless of which end you choose.
Also, Adam Grinwis, everyone. Neither of his PK saves made Sportscenter, but a first half save did.