The only thing I wish is that the Purple Palace would have been packed.
If only Exploria Stadium could have been filled to the rim with chanting, cheering supporters in order to give thousands more of our city’s long-suffering sports fans the opportunity to witness the greatest moment in Orlando City history.
That is the only regret of this historic, euphoric day in Central Florida when Orlando City played, hosted and won its first playoff game in the most dramatic, ecstatic, amazing, hair-raising, heart-stopping, champagne-popping manner you can possibly imagine.
How does this even happen?
How does Orlando City break a 1-1 draw and win on penalty kicks with a substitute, fill-in goalkeeper who hasn’t played the position since he was a kid out on the soccer sandlots in his native Argentina?
Can you believe it?
Can you conceive it?
What a team.
What a coach.
What a game.
What a magical moment in time.
“I’ve never had such an experience as this,” said Orlando City team captain Nani, who has played at the highest levels of the game all over the globe.
Said Oscar Pareja, Orlando City’s franchise-altering coach, afterward: “It was insane … What just happened, I’ve never seen before.”
From now on, this team should no longer be called Orlando City.
The name should immediately be changed to Orlando Gritty.
This gritty, gutty bunch of overachievers whom nobody gave a chance before this season began beat NYCFC on Saturday playing one man down for the final 43 minutes — through the end of regulation and through two 15-minute overtime periods — and forced the game to be decided on penalty kicks.
And then incredibly — on the second round of penalty kicks — backup centerback Rodrigo Schlegel was forced into duty as a goalkeeper and made the most memorable sports save we’ve seen in this country since Mariano Rivera retired. The save opened the door for homegrown winger Benji Michel to drill Orlando City’s game-clinching penalty kick to set off one of the most exhilarating, cathartic sports celebrations this city has ever experienced.
Michel, who went to high school at nearby Montverde Academy, ripped off his shirt and flexed his muscles in front of the supporters section on The Wall. Schlegel was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates. Players and fans alike hugged and high-fived and danced and pranced.
Chaotically, it was the second game-winning celebration of the match for Orlando City. The Lions thought they had won it in the first round of penalty kicks when starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese made what appeared to be a game-clinching save. Orlando City’s players jubilantly sprinted onto the field and Pareja sprinted down the tunnel toward the locker room to inform Ruan, the Orlando City defender who had been red-carded and ejected in the 87th minute, that the Lions had won.
“I didn’t think about anything else but Ruan,” Pareja said afterward. “And then somebody who was almost as fast as me told me that I needed to come back because of what the referee had ruled.”
The ref correctly ruled that Gallese had come off the line before the NYCFC penalty kick, and that meant Orlando City’s starting goalkeeper had earned his second yellow card and was tossed from the game. Orlando City sent in backup goalkeeper Brian Rowe, who after much confusion was told by the officials that substitutes are not allowed during penalty kicks.
Schlegel, who was already on the pitch to take penalty kicks, volunteered to fill in as the goalkeeper even though he had never really played the position in any official capacity.
“I don’t have any real history of being a goalkeeper,” Schlegel said. “… When I was younger playing with my cousins and my uncles in Argentina, I would hop in there occasionally and play goalkeeper. But in this moment, I didn’t know if any of my teammates had any prior experience, so I went to Oscar and said, ‘I can do it.’”
Said Pareja afterward: “This was not the plan. Even though we try to predict the game, what happened today was just crazy.”
“We gave Roddy the gloves and just prayed.”
The prayers were answered when Schlegel soared up and saved a shot by NYCFC’s Gudmundur Thórarinsson, deflecting it off the left post. Whether it was skill, luck or pure fate, Rodrigo Schlegel will go down as perhaps the most profound underdog hero in the annals of Orlando sports history. You’ve heard of Miracle on Ice? This was Sorcery on Sod!
Somebody asked me earlier this week if this match would be the greatest moment in Orlando City history and I said no because I believed this lousy pandemic would rob Exploria Stadium of its aura and atmosphere. The greatest moments, I surmised, aren’t just about the game on the field but the electricity in the air.
I always thought the greatest moment in Orlando City history would forevermore be the inaugural MLS game in 2015 when 62,510 purple-proud fans filled the Citrus Bowl and erupted when the legendary Kaká scored the equalizing goal for the 1-1 draw.
I now thankfully stand corrected.
This is, without a doubt, the most seminal moment in franchise history.
I don’t care how many fans were in the stadium; the atmosphere was incredible. The crowd was raucous and roaring and the delirium and decibel level was tremendous. It all started with a pregame message from Kaká played on the stadium’s video scoreboard. The Brazilian legend closed his tribute to Orlando City’s first playoff game with: “Always a Lion!!!”
The pregame Tifo was then unfurled, paying homage to the three men most responsible for the remarkable turnaround of the franchise — Pareja, Nani and vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi. The caption on the giant banner was borrowed from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — the famous Clint Eastwood spaghetti western:
“For three men, the Civil War wasn’t hell. It was practice.”
In other words, Orlando City’s supporters rightfully feel like they had to walk through the gates of hell to get to this point. They saw their beloved team join MLS amid much fanfare in 2015 (at the same time as NYCFC) and then watched every team in the league but theirs make the playoffs during the next five seasons. They watched their club go through four coaches in five years until Pareja was hired before this season.
In one year, Pareja has convinced a franchise that previously had found every possible way to lose to believe winning is part of its DNA. Doesn’t matter if they are one man down for what amounts to half a match. Doesn’t matter if they are using a goalkeeper who has never actually played goalkeeper.
“We showed the heart of these players and this community today,” Pareja said. “The boys showed the intensity and sacrifice after we lost Ruan [and went a man down]. What happened today, I will keep in my memory forever.”
So will I.
And so will you.
And so will everybody who was there on Saturday.
I just wish every seat could have been filled so thousands more long-suffering supporters could have experienced the magical miracle of the greatest moment in Orlando City history.
This column first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hit me up on Twitter @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on FM 96.9 and AM 740.
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