Before he became the unlikely hero of Orlando City’s first playoff match, Rodrigo Schlegel just needed a chance.
It’s why the 23-year-old centerback came to Orlando City in the first place. He was only getting scraps of playing time for his hometown club, Racing, in Argentina. He’d earned a single start against Corinthians, riding the bench for the rest of his nearly two seasons with the team.
Schlegel needed a change. And the Lions offered him an opportunity — a hungry club with playoff goals and a new coach promising to give every player on the roster a fighting chance for a starting position.
“I’m looking to get the most minutes that I can,” Schlegel said in February ahead of the season. “I will do everything I can for this club. I know I will get better. I know that I made the right decision to come here. It’s been a dream.”
It’s been an uphill battle for Schlegel to earn minutes over the Lions’ starting centerbacks — Antonio Carlos and Robin Jansson.
Carlos and Jansson are two of the top centerbacks in the league, rated by their teammates as MLS All-Star caliber players.
Jansson has already logged 51 games for the Lions in his two seasons in Orlando, playing more minutes than any of his teammates. As a newer offseason addition, Carlos added a dynamic physicality to the core of the Lions’ defense.
Nevertheless, the rushed and compressed 2020 schedule offered chances for Schlegel to prove himself. He rotated in for the centerbacks while they recovered from injuries and during load-management absences, logging six starts alongside Jansson and one paired with Carlos.
Even when Carlos and Jansson are healthy, coach Oscar Pareja often brings in additional defenders to finish games, switching to a five-back lineup to hunker down and preserve the lead.
In 10 appearances and 645 minutes of play, Schlegel quickly established his presence on the backline — fiery, hard-nosed, quick in recovery and brutal in tackles. He played with a bit of attitude, the type of defender to lean over and bark in a striker’s face to get up after a hard tackle.
Schlegel knew his playing chances would be touch-and-go throughout the season. So he focused on being constantly available for whenever — or whatever — Pareja might need him.
On Saturday, that meant being the first player to offer to take the place of keeper Pedro Gallese when he was ejected during penalty kicks with his second yellow card of the match. Backup goalkeeper Brian Rowe couldn’t come on as a substitute, so a player on the pitch for the penalty kick had to step up.
Schlegel wasn’t the only young player to make the offer — Andrés Perea followed almost immediately. Ultimately, Pareja turned to Gallese for his guidance. The keeper went with Schlegel.
The moments that followed were a blur — Gallese coaxing him to stay calm, Carlos hugging him and reiterating the full team’s support.
“In reality, I wasn’t really thinking about much,” Schlegel said. “They asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ And the team had all the confidence in me; the technical staff had all the confidence in me.”
In goal in Orlando for the first time in his professional career, Schlegel was far from home and far from his comfort zone.
Schlegel had never left his home country before his flight to Orlando. The defender comes from a sprawling family — one brother, aunts and uncles, cousins who feel more like siblings — and he knew the distance would be a sacrifice when he first agreed to sign with the Lions.
On his final day at home, Schlegel’s entire family came to the airport to wish him well one more time. In the months of separation that followed, Schlegel stayed in touch through WhatsApp group chats and FaceTime calls, singing karaoke with his cousins from thousands of miles of away.
Like many in Argentina, Schlegel’s family united around the game of soccer. That shared passion became the unlikely source of Schlegel’s meager goalkeeping experience — tossing on the gloves for friendly scrimmages against his uncles and cousins.
The only time Schlegel played a competitive match in goal happened when he was 15 or 16 — he’s not sure exactly. The goalkeeper for his Racing academy team went down with an injury, and the coach called upon Schlegel to step up in goal. He played three or four matches for his academy before a replacement came along.
But Schlegel’s most recent experience in goal came about a year ago in yet another pickup match with his family.
That experience alone wouldn’t have been enough to give Schlegel the confidence to step into goal. But his fierce determination to take chances for his team — paired with the support of Gallese and his coaches — propelled him across the field to face down the game-changing set of penalty kicks.
Even in Gallese’s jersey, Schlegel didn’t look like a keeper. Instead, he looked like what he was — a centerback in gloves. Instead of squatting like a keeper to allow for explosive movement, Schlegel’s stance was the half-crouch of a centerback tracking a striker.
In goal, Schlegel changed his strategy for each kick. He stood in place for the first, hardly moving as the ball flew past him. On the second kick, Schlegel picked a direction, leaping to his right to nearly get a glove on the ball.
For the final kick, Schlegel decided it was time to jump the other way. This dive was less smooth — more of a frog-leap than anything, bow-legged with his knees tucked high and his arms half-stretched over his head.
But it was enough.
“Thank God the ball came to me and I was able to make the save,” Schlegel said.
The scenes after Schlegel’s save will be preserved in Orlando City lore.
Most iconic of all is the shot of Schlegel, alone in front of the goal before his teammates reached him, his mouth twisted open in a roar of joy as he leaps through the air.
In the moment, Schlegel was just a kid getting the chance to prove himself playing the sport he loves.
“That’s football,” Schlegel said. “One minute you think that you’ve won; the next you don’t. You can say this should have happened or this didn’t, but really what matters is the end result. You’ve got something where it happens one minute and you’re happy and then you find out that maybe you didn’t win, then you did again and you’ve got to go through the same thing. It’s very difficult with these emotions, but that’s just the beauty of sport.”
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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