Watching soccer is one thing, but witnessing the spectacle that is Orlando City SC before your very own eyes is a whole other.
For those who have never been to a professional soccer game or believe soccer is too boring to hold your attention, I challenge you to attend a match this season. With 20 teams currently in play, many of those which house members of the US Men’s National Team as well as former greats from across the globe, MLS has genuinely begun to cement itself as a legitimate professional soccer league.
In fact, the ever-growing brand plans to have 24 teams in play by the year 2020. With the additions of an Atlanta-based franchise next year, one in Minnesota, a second in Los Angeles and of course, the Miami David Beckham’s, many of whom credit with the cultural awakening of soccer in America.
My 2016 opening day started with a prematch tailgate; good food and great friends (a necessity for any outing). Orlando City currently plays their home games at the Orlando Citrus Bowl, which isn’t exactly located in the safest part of town.
But you know what, I honestly wasn’t concerned as we took the five-block jaunt from the parking lot (that didn’t cost $40) to the stadium.
A heavy police presence ushered in the record crowd of 60,147. As it turns out, this was the fifth-largest crowd in the entire world during the weekend of March 6, 2016 (now can Orlando, please have a professional baseball team?).
The only misstep of the afternoon was the process of allowing anxious fans into the grounds. Massive lines split according to gender wrapped around sections of the stadium. This paradox caused many, including myself to miss the first 15 minutes of the match!
Aside from the initial delay, the day was a smashing success. There were no drunken fights; the weather was fantastic and the action, insatiable.
My group didn’t exactly have the most fabulous seats -- I’m pretty sure the clouds were closer than the action on the pitch, but it didn’t deter us, not one bit.
Soccer is one of the few sports you appreciate the further you are away from the pitch (or so I tell myself). I’m not inferring I wouldn’t mind catching the action from the midfield sidelines, or in the insane Supporters Section (90 minutes of banging a drum for $20 bucks is a steal of a deal).
As for what transpired on the pitch -- the Lions had a ton of missed opportunities to put this one away early. They simply outplayed Real Salt Lake in all aspects of the match except for when it came to putting balls into the back of the net.
A significant example of this was when Real lost defender Demar Phillips in the 20th minute after he received his second yellow card.
Lions squandered the early man-advantage without applying much pressure, let alone a scoring chance when their midfielder, Darwin Ceren, was given a questionable red card and ejected in the 45th minute.
You see, Salt Lake's Joao Plata had scored twice, once in each half, to give visiting Real a 2-0 lead going into the final four minutes of stoppage time.
However, 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year, Cyle Larin took a feed from Brek Shea and redirected it past Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando for a goal in the 94th minute.
Then just 30 seconds later, Larin crept behind the Salt Lake front line and punted a ball halfway up the field to Adrian Winter, who beat his man, blasting a shot off the bounce, past a stunned Rimando -- tying the match right before the final whistle.
Cue the excitement and three of the four people in my group yelling at the one guy who wanted to leave early because in his words: “This game is over.” Shame! (‘Game of Thrones’ Season 5 reference).
Now sure, I may have followed the club last year because of their expansion season, the acquisition of Kaka (who once played for my favorite club, AC Milan) and recently because of the addition of Antonio Nocerino (another former Rossoneri).
But after witnessing the youthful exuberance and determination of 11-men united (10 for most of this match), result in purple and gold confetti touch the sky as the good people of Orlando celebrated freely -- I know I’ll be an Orlando City fan for life!