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Reports of Potential Spying Taint Buildup to Orlando City’s Biggest Match

While there’s still everything to play for tonight, some of the magic and joy of the day have been stolen from the club’s fans.

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MLS: USA Tour-Arsenal FC at Orlando City SC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The soccer gods couldn’t just let us have one moment of excitement and pure happiness, could they?

Today should be one of the most enjoyable game days in the history of Orlando City Soccer Club. The birds should be singing a little sweeter and the sun should be shining a little brighter in the lead-up to the biggest game in the club’s existence.

Instead, what many of us are feeling on this should-be joyous day is shade — not the welcome respite from the scorching Florida sun, but a cold, black pall cast over everything, sapping some of that joy.

Television commentator Taylor Twellman broke the news Tuesday evening that a source inside the United States Soccer Federation said the organization is looking into an OCSC first-team staff member potentially spying on Sacramento Republic FC’s training session in Orlando on Monday. Other national and regional reporters confirmed the story with their sources shortly thereafter and, while some people on social media hurled misplaced vitriol at Twellman online, Paul Tenorio and Jeff Reuter of The Athletic published a story ($) that used nearly the exact same verbiage in the opening paragraph that Twellman had used in his initial tweet.

The basics are that an as-yet-unnamed member of the Orlando City first-team staff was allegedly spotted watching Sacramento Republic FC’s training session at a public park and was asked to leave, but refused to do so for at least 30 minutes. The alleged staff member’s position or level within the club has not been made public. The club released a public statement Tuesday night acknowledging the matter but not commenting beyond that.

“The Club has been made aware of the matter regarding Sacramento’s training session and is cooperating with U.S. Soccer,” Orlando City said in a statement.

It is too early for the club to say more than that at the moment, but a spokesperson for Orlando City told me this morning via text that while there isn’t anything more specific to say at the moment, updates will be provided as the club learns more.

The fact that Sacramento was training at a public park instead of renting one of the many private fields in the area is...well, let’s be honest, it’s stupid. There are many places in the area less well populated than Central Winds Park.

However, that doesn’t give Orlando City or any of the club’s employees the right to go watch tonight’s visitors — and I want to be very clear and precise here that it remains to be seen whether that has happened. At this point there has been no evidence presented publicly that it happened, just a report that it is being investigated. The court of public opinion may have already deemed the club guilty, and this certainly isn’t a good look, but the facts haven’t been made public yet.

While it may be technically legal for any citizen to be in a public park, what is technically legal isn’t necessarily right. And if a staffer did, in fact, refuse to leave the area where he or she could observe Sacramento’s training session for at least 30 minutes, that’s even worse.

The alleged incident will be investigated in due course and it will have little to no bearing on tonight’s sold-out match at Exploria Stadium. Little can be gleaned from observing training in a way that meaningfully should impact the game. Neither coach is likely to completely overhaul tactics having gotten to this point in the competition. Both coaches already know which players on the other team will be likely to take penalties in case of a draw. Set piece plays could be observed, but as late as Monday, most of the pre-match preparation is already complete (Benji Michel outlined the team’s preparation timeline for the week for us on this week’s episode of The Mane Land PawedCast, which will drop later this morning). Even if you know the other team’s likely set pieces, you still have to know when those plays will be used, and you still have to execute on defense.

Even teams stealing signals in baseball need to be able to hit that curveball, whether they know it’s coming or not.

Tonight’s match will come down to execution, concentration, and desire, whether any spying took place or not. But it suddenly doesn’t feel as fun now, and that’s the most infuriating thing. If spying really took place, that will be even more troubling, because it was completely unnecessary.

Orlando City fans are understandably upset that, if the Lions win, the public outside of the fandom will perceive the victory as tainted due to cheating. And if the opposite happens, these same fans are concerned with the perception of the club having lost to a lower level side — never mind that the same team knocked out the LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City in the previous two rounds and is in this match through legitimate accomplishment — and having gotten its comeuppance. I don’t think the club’s reputation is unimportant, but I also don’t concern myself with the opinions of the club by neutrals or those who already don’t like Orlando City. Life is too short to pour one’s energy into what others think.

It’s just a shame that it’s come to this, whether it happened — especially if it happened — or not.

If there was a spying incident, and let me reiterate that we still don’t know that to be the case, the staff member who did it should absolutely be fired. If that staff member’s superior asked or ordered them to do so, regardless of who it was, that person should also be fired. I would personally advocate that anyone else who knew about it and did nothing to stop it should also go. Integrity should be valued in sport and in life.

As for the penalty if the club is guilty of what is alleged, that likely depends on the extent of the incident (whether it was an employee acting alone or someone directing them to do so, for example), but it’s probably more along the lines of a fine and, in an extreme case, perhaps a suspension from the competition for a year (depending on the aforementioned extent) than any forfeiture of a match.

On the other hand, if an investigation reveals that no such incident took place, U.S. Soccer should absolutely apologize publicly on behalf of its unnamed employee that leaked this to the press less than 24 hours before Orlando City’s biggest match. It should apologize for tainting this day for us all. If that employee’s identity is known inside U.S. Soccer, they should be the one fired.

In the meantime, all we can do is try to hold onto the fact that the club we support is playing for a major trophy tonight. We will be gathering in a full Exploria Stadium to watch the Lions on their biggest stage to date.

Even if some of the fun and joy of this moment has been irrevocably stolen, this is a big moment. Enjoy it as best you can and let the investigation play out in due time.