Some matches offer up fire and fury. Others present cerebral tactical nuances, or pivotal decisions, or gripping individual battles.
And sometimes you just have to watch the tape.
Orlando City SC’s beautifully bizarre shootout win over New York City FC on Saturday most certainly falls into that last category, a gripping spectacle that didn’t ebb and flow so much as veer wildly from drama to mystery to marathon, garnished with a generous dusting of absurdity.
“I think we’ll need more time to calm down and reflect on what happened tonight,” said Lions head coach Oscar Pareja at the start of his postgame press conference. “The analysis of the game, it may wait for tomorrow when we can analyze the soccer side. What just happened at the end, I never saw it before. And this is the beauty of this game, that we're humans and full of emotions and mistakes and good things and all of that. But today the ball [was] bouncing our way.
“After what just happened I can laugh,” he later added, “but believe me, this is insane tonight.”
Pareja’s side seized an early advantage, then suffered for long periods as NYCFC responded furiously, the visitors snatching the initiative with their pretty passing and movement, orchestrated by the typically excellent Maxi Moralez and only denied multiple goals by some sharp saves from Pedro Gallese.
When Orlando fullback Ruan was sent off after a bewildering loss of composure that led him to plant his studs in Gary Mackay-Steven’s thigh after a heavy challenge from the Scottish winger in the 87th minute, it looked as though the Floridians’ old knack for self-immolation had returned just in time to wreck their inaugural adventure in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
As it turned out, that was Orlando’s cue to bear down.
“The boys showed today the heart of this franchise. They showed with all that intensity, sacrifice after we lost Ruan,” said Pareja. “Obviously we need to make many corrections and many things that happened in that last part, but we are proud to represent this community. We are proud to win and beat one of the best teams in Major League Soccer … We will prepare [for] the next game, because this doesn't stop, but what happened today, that will keep in my memory forever.”
Highlights: Orlando City 1 (6), NYCFC 1 (5)
The Lions’ resistance stiffened – “10 men on the field multiplying themselves for this team, that made me very proud,” said Pareja – and they hung in to force a penalty-kick shootout, where things got weirder. Much weirder.
Gallese thought he’d won the game when he saved Taty Castellanos’ penalty, NYCFC’s fifth, only for referee Allen Chapman to rule that he’d left his line early. Under the 2019-20 laws of the game that still apply to this MLS season, that meant both a retake for Castellanos and an automatic caution for the Peruvian goalkeeper, his second yellow and thus a sending-off.
Confusion reigned. Pareja had already raced down the tunnel towards the locker rooms, eager to console Ruan with the news that they’d won, and had to be called back out to the pitch. Lions backup ‘keeper Brian Rowe tried to enter in Gallese’s place, but was eventually rebuffed by the officials, forcing Orlando to pick a field player to step into goal.
“Papi, I can do that,” substitute defender Rodrigo Schlegel told Pareja, the coach later related, a smile peeking out from under his face covering at a phrase that may live long in the club’s history.
“Rodri told [Gallese], ‘I was a goalkeeper when I was in the academy.’ So we just gave him the gloves and prayed,” added Pareja, though Schlegel later clarified that he’d spent only a very limited time between the posts on a stand-in basis very early in his youth career, and never in a match.
“That was very chaotic, for sure,” said Pareja.
Confessed Nani: “I never had such an experience during a game, even an important game like that.”
Schlegel couldn’t stop Castellanos’ spot kick, Sean Johnson denied Nani on Orlando’s fifth and the shootout headed into sudden death. Just when fate seemed to have turned on the team in purple yet again, Schlegel scuttled to his left to parry away Gudmundur Thorarinsson’s PK, setting the stage for Benji Michel to seal victory with his effort.
“I wasn't really able to think about too much,” said Schlegel, an Argentinean center back making his 11th Lions appearance since joining the club last winter. “When I was able to make the stop, I thought that we had won and it was a lot of happiness, but then we had to wait for Benji to take his kick, and then just a bunch of happiness and thinking what luck we had.”
Amid everything, this was Orlando’s first-ever playoff win, and now they’ll plunge further into uncharted territory. Their summer run to the championship final of the MLS is Back Tournament gave them a taste of the high-stakes environment, however, and given what they survived on Saturday, they probably won’t scare easily from here on out.
“It means a lot, being in the playoffs, and just sending a message to the community that we're not just content with just bringing them to the playoffs, that the players want more,” said an emotional Pareja. “They know that the responsibility is on our shoulders to bring joy, and to make this team protagonist of Major League Soccer. With all these circumstances, what happened, it magnifies what they've done, what they did today.
“It has been a long journey, this year, with all that happened, with the pandemic, with people being in their houses and not being able to come to the stadium, people suffering and many others losing their loved ones. And we have such emotions in our body, in our minds that we want to get out, and today the game gave us that opportunity, to bring all those emotions.”