[Orlando, FL] The game had it all: a huge media build-up, incredible story lines, talented participants, high drama, players expelled mid-match, near brawls and a stadium (half) full of Central Florida soccer fans loving every minute of it. Fox Soccer Channel was even televising the game nationally, adding even more pressure and excitement to a game already boiling over.
The Florida Citrus Bowl stadium was about to witness one of the most exciting finishes in the building’s long history. And that says a lot for a building that has hosting games since 1936.
At the end, the Orlando City Lions would emerge victorious over the Harrisburg City Islanders on Saturday night, crowned USL Pro champs and write the final chapter in a once-in-a-lifetime soccer script starring the City Beautiful. But it almost didn’t happen …
The game started with several compelling story lines shaping the outcome even before the starting whistle had sounded. Three of the Islanders’ key components were not allowed to participate as midfielder Brian Ombiji, defender Andrew Marshall and head coach Bill Becher all received one-game suspensions for earning red cards in their previous match.
For Orlando, goal scorer Matt Luzunaris was called back up by the San Jose Sharks earlier in the week and unavailable for the team’s championship match. In addition, starting defender Kieron Bernard tore his hamstring last week and was unable to compete. His normal replacement – Demar Stewart – was also unavailable due to “family reasons.”
The First Half
The warm, end-of-summer night air was electric with Red City excitement as the Orlando City Lions were playing in their first final. In their first season of existence. That alone is a unique experience among fans of sports franchises. Very few have shot straight to the top right out of the gate.
But there was Orlando, playing in front of a franchise record crowd of 11,220 who wore mostly red on this glorious occasion.
Harrisburg tried to rattle the Lions early with tough physical play, with defender Stephen Basso getting an early yellow card for his efforts.
The yellow seemed to cool off the Islanders a bit and the game settled in and Orlando looking quite comfortable holding the ball for extended lengths of time. Orlando was trying to build up to getting the first goal of the game, which statistically – they were 15-0-3 after scoring first – would lead them to victory.
But City Islanders were an experienced, tough-nosed bunch who were used to playoff soccer and had a been-there, done-that demeanor about them. They were not going to be rattled easy.
Orlando was having a tough time getting a good shot on goal.
Play after play, Harrisburg seemed up to the challenge as Orlando had appeared to be unbeatable – they only lost once at home this season – and thoroughly dominating as of late. Of course, Harrisburg had to win a string of games to get to the finals, but Orlando had taken it to them during the regular season twice.
In fact it was Orlando that was failing to connect on some early passes when on the attack leading to visible frustration by some of the players not used to such scrappy play. So Orlando turned up the defensive heat and started to play more physical. More and more Harrisburg players began hitting the turf and shaking off the cobwebs after hard legal tackles.
It was going to be that kind of game. Plenty of good, hard-fought soccer, not a lot of mistakes. Fittingly, the crowd was loud and proud, sounding every bit as boisterous and bang-y as those assembled for a World Cup contest.
At the 19:00 mark, Harrisburg ripped a free kick that greatly concerned Orlando keeper Miguel Gallardo who was in full stretch as the ball sailed wide right. The crowd knew that one was a little too close for comfort.
What was stopping most of Orlando’s attacks was the offsides flag: the team was flagged for 3 offsides in the first 23 minutes of the game. Last week they had zero all game. Another offsides at 26:00 the crowd booed, not agreeing with the call. It wouldn’t be the first time the crowd let thew ref know that they did not agree with him.
Red City doesn’t like it when calls don’t go their way.
The best chance of the game came when Harrisburg midfielder David Schofield shot it over the goal – and through the outstretched arms of Gallardo – after a near-offsides play. The stadium noticeably went tense for a moment, then collectively exhaled after it cleared the post. The shot was an absolute rocket.
The Lions are called for offsides … again. The crowd groans again but the replay says the ref had it right.
Even with that near-miss by the City Islander, Orlando was in control, pressuring the goal more and developing more scoring opportunities. Uncharacteristically, Orlando’s service into the box was lacking – crosses were either off-target or sailing harmlessly out of bounds.
It was now 35 minutes into the half and still no score.
Now it was Harrisburg’s turn to press, then Orlando. The back and forth was as thrilling as it was maddening. Both teams were now enjoying chances at goal stopped by great defensive plays or unfortunate circumstances. Orlando seemed to have the exclusive rights to offsides calls.
The footwork of City Islanders forward Sainey Touray kept Orlando on it heels in the final minute of regulation with two minutes of stoppage time to go. Touray appeared as if he was going to dribble it right into the net.
Possibly a momentum killer for the visitors was the harsh tackle by Islander Jason Pellitier who upended a Lion and got him a yellow card for his overindulgence. No matter, the half was over and it was still 0-0.
The Second Half
Orlando charged into the second half with a sense of urgency, possibly on by spurred on during the halftime huddle by Coach Adrian Heath.
Orlando got off the first shot on goal, but it was a weak one. Then disaster struck – at the 48th minute, Orlando City goal keeper Miguel Gallardo is hit with a straight red card for taking down a charging Harrisburg attacker. Did that really just happen? The league’s best goalie was just booted from the game and Orlando would have to play the rest of this championship game with only ten men?
If there ever was a moment that could kill a dream, this was it. The crowd was upset, chanting the typical “bullshit” as is customary at this juncture in heated contests such as these. But the replay showed that it was well-deserved. Now how would it play out?
Orlando made some adjustments and brought in backup net minder Sean Kelley, who had two victories in two starts this season. But it was still 10 v 11 in Harrisburg’s favor.
Kelley would be introduced to the game early by Maxwell Griffin’s ground-level shot that went just left of the post. Then, another offsides call goes against Orlando. This was becoming a habit. Conspiracy theorists were starting to ask questions. They may have a point as that was not an obvious call.
The game surely opened up a lot now that the Lions were down to ten men. Harrisburg attacked as the OC countered. A great string of passes by the Lions left a wide open goal, but it was again called back for offsides.
Finally feeling the man advantage, Harrisburg started to flex their muscles about twelve minutes into the second half. City was still attacking, but it was all breakaways as Harrisburg dominated the ball.
Another offside – even the City players were starting to groan and throw up their hands. Kelley’s hands were kept busy, however as a pair of scrappy saves kept Orlando in game.
Harrisburg was starting to show off a bit, obviously feeling good about their chances and letting the fancy footwork and ball movement fly. Orlando was getting frustrated and, in the heat of the battle, midfielder Kevin Molina grabbed the jersey of a streaking Islander and was awarded a yellow.
It was now full sprint breakaways at both ends with both goalies seeing plenty of action, but no real threats. Just then Kelley charges outside of the box to take the ball from an attacking forward and saving the day. This kid can play.
Easily the best scoring chance of the match for Orlando so far: Midfielder Jamie Watson blows an open goal opportunity after having beaten City Island keeper Chase Harrison. A defender came out of nowhere to save the day. Watson, dejected and lying on the field, knows he should have hit it on goal first touch. Still 0-0.
Coach Heath is really working his players on the sideline, keeping their spirits up.
The crowd – just announced as an Orlando City Lions attendance record – is sensing that it needs to get involved and starts throwing streamers onto the field and directly at Harrisburg’s goalkeeper. Harrison is not amused.
Orlando’s Luke Boden has a nice rip from just outside the box, but chances were few and far between now. Watson and Molino are not working together anymore. Heath recognizes it and immediately subs out Watson. Man does he look fatigued.
This hard-fought battle is now coming down to the last twelve minutes of regulation. With tensions high, Harrisburg’s Andrew Welker is issued a yellow at the 77th minute. A single mistake could decide the game and everybody on the field knows it.
Surprisingly, Orlando is doing a better job of keeping the ball, even with being a man down. Then another counter-attack by Harrisburg yielding yet another daring edge-of-box save by Kelley at the 80th min. The kid’s fearless, I tell you.
The crowd was starting to look for someone on the field to step up and score a goal for Orlando. They decided Mechek Jerome was their man. As he received the ball 40 yards out, the crowd screamed almost in unison for the defender to blast it. He did, and it was a good shot, but it whizzed past Harrisburg goal post without really troubling Harrison.
Orlando called for another offsides, imagine that. 83 minutes in they have been rung up for twelve. The crowd, who up until this point was not too happy with the officiating, lost it when Harrison met an attacking Orlando City player just outside the box and appeared to deflect it with his hands.
No call was made. Was the fix in? Some started to wonder.
It was now 85 minutes into this contest and the players look drained, the back and forth pace starting to wear on them. The play is getting sloppier, but both keepers continue to make great saves. It was surely looking like this one was headed into OT.
And then, after an amazing build up, Orlando’s Lawrence Olum smashes one into the upper right corner of the goal at the 89th minute. The place went wild, literally exploding with joy, confetti, streamers and dance music. A goal never felt so good. They are actually going to win this thing. Midfielder Lewis Neal had the assist.
Emboldened, Orlando kept the ball as much as possible as the world waited for how much stoppage time was being added. Then, on a fabulous breakaway, Harrisburg’s keeper took out an Orlando player in a nearly mirror-image of what got Gallardo a red earlier in the game. Except this time, he was only given a yellow, perhaps because there were defenders behind him (unlike in the Gallardo case).
Two minutes into stoppage time and still no announcement. Then the dagger: five minutes of stoppage time. What? As the shock set in and the talk of conspiracies taking over the stadium – the yellow card, the stoppage time – Harrisburg took control and starting pressing. Hard.
Then, Orlando gets the ball back and starts to play keep away. Heath is excellent at soccer strategy. This feels good, i think we got this. Why won’t the ref blow his whistle?
Then Harrisburg earns a corner. Everyone on the field heads to the goal box, even the City Islanders keeper. The ball sails into the box, is fumbled around a bit and then – bam – just like that, it is tapped into the back of the net. You couldn’t even see who hit it in, although I hear it was JT Noone.
The replay showed that Orlando’s keeper was blocked out from the play which is not allowed under the rules, yet there was no call. Then just after restart, the whistle blew again for the end of the game.You mean Harrisburg tied the game in the last 20 seconds of stoppage time that went on way to long?
It was 1-1 and everybody in the stands could not believe what they had just witnessed. Usually it was Orlando who stunned crowds not the other way around.
During the break, the anger swelled both on and off the field and aimed squarely at the referee who had not only added an extremely generous five minutes of stoppage time, but didn’t call the foul when their goalie was pushed out of the play. For the ref, this was now a hostile environment both on and off the field.
The Lions were now facing two 15 minute overtime periods. Their entire glorious season would come down to a 30 minute mini-game with the possibility of penalty kick shoot-out looming at the end of it.
Feeling dejected and still smarting after Harrisburg’s last-second heroics, the fans try to get back into the game as OT begins, but find it difficult. On the field, however, they are into the game a little too much as tempers flare and little pushes are given here and there as the pressure mounts.
This could get ugly real fast.
Then Harrisburg gets the first real chance of the first overtime period as City Islanders forward Morgan Langley storms into the area but is well defended, knocking the ball over the touchline. On the ensuing corner, Touray slips into the middle undetected and heads the ball past the keeper for a quick score.
It was now 2-1 and looking bleak for the home side. Harrisburg has scored two goals in 5 minutes and they certainly have the momentum – and USL playoff experience – going forward. Orlando City was gonna have to dig deep … and then dig even deeper to pull this one out.
Orlando’s squad was visibly wounded, although still showing some spark. They would need to score soon and not leave it all up until the end. Both teams exchanged shots but nothing that troubled either keeper.
At the twelve-minute mark, Harrisburg was looking clearly in command, with occasional flashes of brilliance from Orlando City. Then if by the grace of the soccer gods an amazing chance for the Lions but, again, offsides.
Have to keep trying, time was running out. And it just did. It was now halftime and the theme from Rocky was being blasted on the public address system.
The second half began much as the same as first with Harrisburg in control and Orlando sprinting down the filed on counterattacks. But then it happened, Orlando started to press unmercifully. To their credit, the City Islanders were keeping it together (and more importantly for them, the ball out of the net).
On the field, players were doing a lot of shoving and pushing, as one one would expect in this sort of situation. Nobody wanted to go home a loser. Another Orlando fast break close to the goal when,wham, the Lions player was brought down in the box but no whistle was blown. The crowd had had enough.
Once Harrison captured the ball, an Orlando player bumped him back out of his stance and the ref stormed in to stop what was appearing to erupt in an all-out melee. As the referee sorted things out, the fans let it be known that they were unhappy with the no-call, among other perceived atrocities.
In seconds, the field became the world’s largest garbage can as bottles and cans of all shapes and sizes made their way onto the pitch, surely thrown toward the ref and Harrison, who were well within striking distance. Team and field reps sprung into action removing the debris and motioning for the fans to stop throwing things onto the field.
Order was restored and an announcement was made that fans throwing items on the field will be ejected. Play resumed peacefully.
Close call after close call, but no goal for Orlando, who had clearly gained the momentum and the re-roar of the crowd. As that doomsday clock inched ever so closely to that 15:00 mark, you could feel the Red City faithful practically willing the ball down the field and into the net. It was on one such breakaway that Lions forward Dennis Chin was taken down by defender Jereritt Thayer in the box.
As Chin fell, all eyes turned toward the ref to see if he was going to call it. After a slight hesitation, he pointed to the spot and blew the whistle. Orlando had earned a penalty kick and a chance to save the season with just moments to spare.
After what seemed like an eternity, Neal took the kick and calmly put it past Harrison, and the Citrus Bowl went crazy. More music and streamers, less cans and bottles. Now tied 2-2, the game was seemingly headed to penalty kicks. Yep, there’s that whistle.
Image: Chris McEniry/Sunshine Slate Images
With the crowd still buzzing after the last goal, it was a bit difficult to face what was coming next: the quiet tension of a shoot out. One of the most dreaded endings in sports. One missed kick can send your whole team back home as a loser.
Orlando started strong thanks to Kelley who literally saved the day by blocking the first two Harrisburg penalty kicks. Orlando scored their first two and were now up 2-0 with only three kicks to go.
Then Harrisburg gets one, Orlando misses. Harrisburg gets another one, Orlando misses. It was tied-up going into the final two kicks.
It would come down to Harrisburg star Touray missing his shot first, then Orlando’s Devorn Jorsling scoring his for Orlando to take the title. Orlando wins!!! Orlando wins the championship!!!
“You could not have had a better game,” said Orlando City owner Phil Rawlins after the epic match. “The record number of fans who came out tonight saw one for the history books. This is huge for Orlando, even bigger for Orlando City. … This is one that we will never forget.”
That’s for sure.
By: Mark Christoper/Sunshine Slate
Lead image: Chris McEniry/Sunshine Slate Images
All other images: Jim Bourhill for Sunshine Slate (unless otherwise noted)