I’m still in shock. Orlando City played host to New York City FC in the team’s first ever MLS Cup playoff match and it was an instant classic. The three-plus-hour slugfest saw the Lions move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals after defeating New York City in the most unpredictable penalty shootout you could imagine. Here are my takeaways from a magical day in Orlando City’s MLS history.
That Was Unbelievable
It was a historic day for Orlando City Soccer Club, hosting its first ever MLS Cup playoff match, but nobody could’ve imagined the unbelievable and instantly legendary events that occurred. This match got off to a torrid start with two goals in the first 10 minutes of the match, with both teams showing a level of quality you expect in a playoff match, but that is not what will be remembered. From the second half of this match on, things went from good to unforgettable, though not necessarily for the right reasons.
Even if many fans don’t consider Orlando vs. New York City a rivalry, it definitely looked like one on the field. The match took a turn for the nasty with several heavy challenges and heated exchanges, with all of it culminating in Ruan’s nasty red card. Somehow, someway, the Lions hung on to penalties, though Tesho Akindele nearly stole it in regulation, and the legend continued to ascend.
When we look at the defining images in Orlando City’s history, Rodrigo Schlegel’s celebration after saving a penalty will surely rank as one of the greats. The unimaginable scenes of having a field player in goal during a shootout in the playoffs is so crazy that literally nobody would have predicted it. It was a play that could only happen when one team is destined to win, and on this day it was Orlando. And to cap everything off, Homegrown Benji Michel lasered in the final penalty. These games make you love MLS, love sports, and love Orlando City. What a game.
Offense Was Incredibly Limited Most Of The Game
It was a poor day going forward for the Lions. Throughout the match, Nani, Chris Mueller, and others in attack routinely made the wrong decision or were just a little bit off. Several chances were squandered because of ill-advised dribbles from Nani or Mueller, Daryl Dike was sloppy with his touches in dangerous areas, and the finishing was poor. Orlando finished with only three shots on target for the entire match.
There were good sequences. Maurico Pereyra was a creative presence once again — he posted a team high five key passes and six successful dribbles — though it yielded no real end product thanks to a lack of quality from the others in attack. Perhaps it was just some postseason jitters, but if Orlando wants to stay alive in the postseason, the Lions need more from their attack, especially from Mueller and Dike, who are capable players but failed to make enough of an impact against the Pigeons.
Antonio Carlos and Pedro Gallese Are Superheroes
This game was a masterclass from the two South American stars. Gallese was incredible between the pipes for Orlando in the first half, including his otherworldly double save, first on Valentin Castellanos then a strong one-handed stuff of young American Keaton Parks on the rebound. MLS’s charter flight rule saved the day for the Lions, allowing their brilliant keeper to do what he does best.
Brian Rowe is a good keeper, but we were reminded Saturday just how good El Pupo is. He is undoubtedly one of the best shot stoppers in MLS and saved the day early on. Antonio Carlos can often go unsung among the stars of this team and this league, but he has shown time and time again he is one of the top class center backs in MLS and has made things much easier for Orlando City. Against NYCFC, he had arguably his best performance in purple, winning seven of his eight duels, making four tackles, five clearances, and 10 ball recoveries.
Anytime there was a fire in Orlando’s own half, be it from a mistake or a quality play by New York City FC, Antonio Carlos was there to right the ship. A lot of praise also goes to Robin Jansson in defense as well, but it was the Brazilian’s night. What really got me with his night, though, was the shootout. It’s a bold play for a center back to take a penalty to begin with, and his was a beauty. Then he capped it off with a perfect kiss-the-badge celebration. I absolutely love it when a player shows that he’s all in with a club like that, and Luiz Muzzi needs to do everything in his power to turn Carlos’s loan deal into a permanent transfer this off-season.
This Team Really Cares
The passion this group has for each other and this club is unbelievable. These players are giving their all every play and it makes a difference. The Lions did not play great soccer — nobody should make the argument they did — but they played with unbelievable heart and grit. They dug their heels in and made life a living hell for NYCFC, and it panned out. There is a passion and a determination to win from this team that’s impressive for a group that hasn’t been together very long.
Many of these players are in their first or second season with the club or are even on loan, but they’ve completely bought into the culture, and that’s a testament to Oscar Pareja. He has brought this team together and they play for each other. There are so many different players that you can see are giving it their all, but I want to highlight one in particular: Nani. When a player comes to MLS after a big career in Europe, it doesn’t always pan out. It’s very easy for them to not give 100% effort and just coast, but Nani is different. He has become a leader in ways other stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic never did in this league and is actually giving his all for the team. When Nani wears the armband, it’s not just because he’s the big star or the most experienced. You can tell that he’s the leader of this team.
Rodrigo Schlegel Is a Legend
I already mentioned it briefly before, but I want to highlight once again the heroics of Schlegel. Obviously, nobody would’ve predicted that an emergency goalkeeper was going to be called upon in penalty kicks, but Schlegel stepped in and made himself a legend. When the team needed somebody to be the hero, he went to Pareja and said, “Papi, I can do that,” and he did it.
It takes real guts to put the team’s season on the line like this, and I will forever respect Schlegel for stepping up. I will also forever respect Andres Perea for offering to take the spot as well. Was Schlegel a competent goalkeeper? Absolutely not, and why would he be? He’s a center back. But somehow, someway, he made a big play when his team needed him the most and he will forever be a legend in Orlando.
There was so much that happened in this game, so what takes did I miss? What are your takeaways from a wild start to Orlando City’s MLS Cup playoff run?