MLS Skills Challenge captures the imagination with Disney storybook finish

ORLANDO, Fla. — With the clock expiring and the buzzer blaring, fans, players, onlookers, influencers, and media all held their breath in suspense with one last clipped ball afloat from midfield. 

Could it be? Was it headed for the crossbar? Would the hometown contingent from Orlando City SC overcome Atletico Madrid and the MLS All-Stars in the return of the Skills Challenge? No, that'd be too perfect an ending, even at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Right?

With the ball lofted, looking like this one might climb past the bar and, painfully for OCSC superstar Nani, onto the roof of the net. The apparent champions-to-be Atleti were out of their chairs and on their toes. 

As the ball made its initial descent, Nani did too, crouching, willing gravity to do him a solid. 

Ping. 

On a muggy midsummer night with stars aplenty lining the pitch, what a sweet sound. It's how Nani and company took home the trophy for MLS Skills Challenge presented by Target, pinging the crossbar from midfield as time expired to inch ahead of the Atleti team 202-195, while the MLS All-Stars finished in third with 168.

"It was really competitive with excellent players," Nani said afterward. "Good for people to enjoy because we enjoyed ourselves a lot and I think that was the most important thing. In the end, we wanted to win and it's good the victory stayed with us." 

Show of Skill

The Skills Competition was comprised of three challenges: Shooting, Touch & Volley and Passing.

The first event kicked off with each team standing at the penalty spot, aiming to score points with targets in the goal:

The MLS All-Stars got out of the gate slow, with Wayne Rooney pulling most of the weight for the All-Stars by hitting the corners. Then the Shooting challenge ended with Orlando City hitting each of the three 10-point plates, first Nani, then Sebastian Mendez and lastly Chris Mueller. It forecasted what would come later.

But Atletico Madrid's three-person team picked up more Shooting points than the other two. With Spanish international Koke alongside Mexican international Hector Herrera and teenage sensation Joao Felix, whose recent $140 million transfer fee made him one of the world's most expensive players, Atleti picked up big points across every challenge, finding the back of the net on the arduous Touch & Volley, too. 

That event saw Orlando's Mueller fire a scissors kick into the back of the net, much to the delight of the crowd. That finish earned Orlando 20 points and factored heavily as to why they were awarded another 20 points from a panel of judges, including World Cup champion Alex Morgan and former NFL star Chad Johnson.

As it turns out, they needed every last point.

"Kudos and thank you to Mr. Mueller for bringing it, getting airborne and doing what the people came here to see: Something amazing," said Alexi Lalas, who was one of the judges. "The man should take a bow, he should take a lap of honor right now." 

Crossbar Tekkers

The final event was supposed to be a complex one, designed to show off the superstars' passing range and ability. Each team had two minutes to accrue as many points as they could, through various passing target, including the option to aim for the crossbar, worth a maximum 25 points.

But instead of scattering passes across the field, Carlos Vela, Rooney and Jonathan dos Santos looked to exploit that 25-point value, spending their entire two minutes raining down on the crossbar. It worked, leading Atleti and Orlando to do the same. 

Atleti overtook the MLS All-Stars' score with a bit of a cushion for Orlando to chase. Mueller, Mendez and Nani started strong but faded as the clock wound down. It appeared that Atleti's score would be enough to hold on.

When Nani's final effort banged the woodwork, he and his teammates went wild, hugging and jumping together at midfield. It meant something to those guys, ditto for the hometown fans.

"You can't ask for anything better," lead commentator Max Bretos said. "I don't think Orlando City was given a shot at this because of the class on the other teams. We talked to Atleti and the MLS All-Stars and they wanted to win. Testing your skills against another, it's a perfect storybook finish."

Let's run it back next year, yeah?

Series: 

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