It’s safe to say that Orlando City fans were split between those who were more optimistic than everyone else about the Lions’ chances in the MLS is Back Tournament and those who were less optimistic than everyone else about the Lions’ chances in the MLS is Back Tournament. After all, we’ve all been hurt before.
We were optimistic entering the league under Adrian Heath. Most of us felt an MLS Cup-winning coach like Jason Kreis could help the team take a step forward. Many believed James O’Connor was the best young coach available and the team could grow along with him in the game. Well, none of that actually worked out.
Oscar Pareja’s hiring gave Orlando City fans hope but it was a guarded hope. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four times, well...[/drinks bleach]. Some moves were made in the off-season which were generally met with nods of approval but only the addition of Peruvian international goalkeeper Pedro Gallese seemed like a “big” move.
So it’s understandable that Orlando entered MLS is Back as an underdog. We didn’t know what to expect exactly, but when Group A still had six teams in it and Orlando had matches against two expansion clubs, there was optimism that a trip to the knockout rounds was possible, if not precisely a given. Then a couple of teams pulled out due to coronavirus infections, MLS shuffled the groups, and the Lions’ road got tougher.
An emotional win over new “rival” Inter Miami CF brought more optimism. Then Gallese put his full range of skills on display against New York City FC, and suddenly the Lions were through the group stage after only two matches. Next came a draw against a good Philadelphia side in which Orlando spent stretches looking very much like the better side and City had captured Group A.
But people around the league weren’t buying any stock in Orlando City, and why would they? The Lions had proven nothing. And a slim 1-0 win over Montreal in the Round of 16 did nothing to change that perception. Pundits spoke of Orlando as a team that was starting to improve, and rightfully pointing at Pareja for the club looking competent at last, but the team was still not seen as a “good” team.
NBC Sports’ preview of the quarterfinals ran with the headline, “LAFC favorites to reach MLS is Back semis; who joins them?” While the piece itself called the match “intriguing,” it did not make it seem like anything other than a formality before LAFC moved on to the semis. Meanwhile, ESPN wants to know if Orlando City is for real.
“Probably that’s a good tool to use, [but] our players don’t need it,” Pareja said when asked if he motivates his players by playing the underdog card. “They know where they’re going and I’m very sure that they know who they are and that’s what is important. What others think about them is irrelevant at this moment because we are in our building mode and that’s what I feel. They’re just going and moving forward. Obviously in soccer there’s many people who want to say things and if we’re not the favorites to win, well then we accept that. It’s normal, but we will continue to improve and one day we will be.”
But those who watched Friday night’s match saw something beyond intriguing. Orlando was the better side for just about the entire game — particularly in the first half. The exception to that came after LAFC had scored and Orlando was forced to chase the game. But don’t take my word for it. That’s exactly what Pareja said and both Nani and Joao Moutinho echoed that in Friday’s press conference.
“The game rewarded them because they were the best team on the field,” he said.
The Lions built a 7-0 advantage in shots in the opening 45 minutes against the most explosive offense in MLS, and didn’t bunker to do it. In fact, they played toe-to-toe with the MLS heavyweights. The second half started similarly and, in fact, it seemed Orlando would finally take its deserved lead in the 57th minute on a penalty won by speedy fullback Ruan and taken by team captain Nani — a guy who had previously scored on a must-make penalty in a Champions League final.
The captain left his penalty where LAFC goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer could reach it and, shortly after that, Sebas Mendez made the defensive third turnover that the Lions had done so well to avoid all night, handing LAFC a 1-0 lead on a transition goal by Bradley Wright-Phillips on his team’s first shot. Trailing, Orlando was forced to open up a bit and that led to LAFC getting more opportunities.
That’s when Gallese again showed why he was a worthy off-season acquisition, turning Diego Rossi — MLS is Back’s leading scorer — aside multiple times to keep the deficit at just one. The Lions began to run out of gas — and healthy starters, with Robin Jansson joining Chris Mueller on the bench — as time wound down. But the hallmark of this team since joining MLS is late-game heroics. Sometimes for, but just as often against. The 2020 version, under Pareja, looked for the former and found it.
Ruan sent a deadly cross in for Santiago Patino, forcing Tristan Blackmon to make an emergency sliding challenge. He kept the ball from Patino’s foot in front of goal, but conceded a corner. Nani delivered a perfect back-post ball and Moutinho beat Jordan Harvey to it, heading home against his old team and sending the game to a penalty shootout.
“We want to be the protagonists, it doesn’t matter who we are up against,” Moutinho said. “We knew that they had a great team. They have very good forwards and midfielders but we also knew that we had great energy, starting with our front line pressing them from the get-go. We are trying to make a statement here. We are trying to show the other teams that we are coming out here to play and to impose our game on them.”
While that might have been heartbreaking for LAFC supporters, it was the least the Lions deserved for the performance. Sure, they needed to be sharper in front of goal, but they did so many things well that to not at least have a chance to move on would have been an unjust ending.
Pareja has a word for his players when they take the field — the one Moutinho used in the above quote: “protagonist,” meaning the main character of the story. You hear it repeatedly in every press conference from both Papi and his players. He wants his team to be the game’s protagonists. To achieve this, he asks his players to express themselves with intensity and focus. You don’t get much more focused than a perfect five-for-five performance in a nervy penalty shootout with the semifinals on the line. In fact, three of Orlando’s five shooters were defenders. All of them picked their spot well and hit their penalty with authority.
“We kept fighting. Our team was amazing,” Nani said. “Every player who was on the field. It was fantastic — the determination, the quality of football we put on the field, the courage, the desire to win. I think we deserved at the end (that) we scored a goal because of everything we put on the field and obviously on the penalty kicks we put more concentration, we put more determination, and the best team won the game.”
When Nani connected with the final kick of the match, everyone talked about Orlando “stunning” LAFC and the word “upset” found its way into every match recap and nearly every headline. And when you look at the talent across the board and the recent history of the two sides, it was exactly that. But if you watched the match, it wasn’t an upset at all. Orlando went out onto the field and earned that appearance in the semifinals.
LAFC can point to having shorter rest — a legit gripe, perhaps — but the Lions were the ones who appeared more out of gas in the 80th minute. Gallese was forced to make vital saves in the 81st and 88th minutes and LAFC looked more likely to score a second and kill the game than Orlando did to go on and tie it up at that point. But the Lions reached down into their reserves and mounted one more attack, with perhaps the last of Ruan’s energy to get forward. Orlando executed, and here we are.
“I would like to say, pay attention to our team with good eyes — good eyes — and give respect to the football,” Nani said after the match. “Because we’ve been working hard and we’re going to continue to work hard just to play our football and try to improve. We are a team who are improving our football, but to respect our football is very important.”
He’s not wrong. Pareja has this team playing well-organized soccer and the Lions — to a man — believe they belong on the field with anyone. You could see it in Kyle Smith’s perfect penalty. In Patino’s diagonal run to try to get onto Ruan’s cross. In Nani’s excellent cross for the tying assist and steely nerves to bury the decisive penalty.
These are the new Lions. They may not win this tournament. But if this year’s Orlando City finally makes the MLS Cup playoffs (if there’s a continuation to the regular season), it should surprise absolutely no one at this point. Orlando has earned that much with its 3-0-2 July.
“They were patient in the difficult moments and I want to highlight that,” Pareja said about Friday’s performance. “That’s the heart of the team and the club. We want to share that with our fans and the people who are just starting to believe and the people who have believed in us all the time. We’re ready to move forward.”