Orlando City centerback Rodrigo Schlegel eagerly tugged on the goalkeeper gloves, his face scrunched up in concentration as he jogged toward the goal during the final minutes of the first MLS playoff match in club history.
Behind him, the Wall roared in support as the 23-year-old shouldered the jersey and expectations of star goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
During the first penalty kick taken by Nicolás Acevedo, Schlegel didn’t even jump. During the second shot, however, he threw his body airborne, flinging out both gloves to block away the game-winning shot.
The game wasn’t won quite yet — homegrown winger Benji Michel was the one to ice the win a minute later. But that didn’t stop the entire Lions bench from swarming the field, alternating between grabbing Schlegel and shouting praise in his face.
Eventually the team was corralled of the field, and Michel sent the game-winning ball into the net. Purple smoke flooded the air, fans roared from the stands and the team lofted Schlegel above their head in front of a tifo reading, “Orlando versus Everbody.”
Orlando City earned an elimination playoff win over NYCFC by a score of 1-1 (6-5 penalty kicks). The Lions finished down two men due to ejections, surviving two overtime periods and a wildly unusual penalty kick series.
It’s hard to explain how we got here. First there was a red card on Ruan in the 87th minute, then two halves of overtime. Pedro Gallese saved the first NYCFC penalty kick only to be ejected with his second yellow card minutes later.
In the end, Schlegel carved his place into the Orlando City storybooks to send the team to the next round of the MLS Cup playoffs.
This wasn’t ever going to be easy or simple or boring. It’s Orlando City and New York City FC in a single-elimination playoff match. The stakes were high and the drama was guaranteed.
And in the most confusing, convoluted, contentious chapter of this 2020 season, the Lions punched their way into another historic finish.
In the opening eight minutes, the match seemed set for an overdose of adrenaline. Nani earned a penalty kick in the fourth minute when his back post header was deflected by Anton Tinnerholm’s hand.
The captain coolly slotted his shot into the net, running to the corner and greeting the wall in celebration of the team’s first MLS playoff goal.
But that celebration was short-lived. Maxime Chanot headed down a corner kick to level the score in the eighth minute, cutting short the Lions’ lead after only three minutes.
After trading body blows, both teams seemed dazed, struggling to connect passes or rope together any sort of attacking momentum. NYCFC pelted the Lions’ goal with shots in the first half, but the Lions were held together by the core of their defense — centerbacks Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos and Gallese.
Days before Saturday’s match, the Lions thought they’d have to start the playoffs without Gallese after his Peruvian call-up to the South American World Cup qualifiers. But a last-minute charter flight from the league allowed the keeper to skip a quarantine period, putting him back between the posts against New York.
Throughout the first half, Gallese proved why the Lions needed him. He saved four sizzling on-frame shots in the first 45 minutes alone, including a one-handed double-save while sprawled out on the ground.
With neither team finding a groove on the attack, the game devolved into a brutal slug-fest. The Lions and Pigeons struggled to create meaningful chances, and their frustration poured over into crunching tackles and body blows.
That energy came to a head in the 85th minute when Gary Mackay-Steven clobbered Ruan to the ground. On his way to his feet, he planted both hands on Ruan’s torso and shoved him hard.
Ruan took the bait. He kicked out at the midfielder, landing his studs in his thigh. It took less than a minute for the referee to pull out his red card, standing over Ruan until he finally clambered to his feet to receive the ejection.
Recent experience with playing a man down allowed the Lions to manage the ejection. But the game had reached a fever pitch that neither side could fully control. The referee handed out seven cards in the final 20 minutes of regulation, five of which went to Orlando City players.
Despite this fragmented rhythm, the Lions almost won it with the last touch of the game — a back-post pass to Tesho Akindele, who fired off a wide-open shot only to send it over the crossbar.
With the score tied 1-1, the teams dove into overtime. Despite being down a player, the Lions took control of possession at first, but they struggled to convert on-ball possession into shots on frame.
Kamal Miller saw the best chance of those 30 minutes, turning and firing from point blank range in the box only to swing his shot wide of frame.
The penalty kick round didn’t play out in a straight forward manner, either. When Gallese earned his second yellow card for time wasting, backup keeper Brian Rowe was prevented from substituting on in his place because time had expired. That decision, however, took minutes and played out in front of a crowd of thousands of fans. Coaches pulled up rules of the game on their phones as they lobbied the referees.
Rowe was subbed on, then walked off the field, then was allowed back on and then was sent off again.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter — Schlegel’s heroics were enough to keep the Lions alive.
When Gallese was presented with Man of the Match after the game, he shared it with Schlegel, posing for a picture with both holding the trophy.
The Lions will now await the results of Tuesday’s match between Philadelphia and the New England Revolution. Orlando City will face the winner of that match in the conference semifinals next Sunday.
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