Orlando’s Recent Run Proves Bigger Than Expected

On a soggy night during the Disney Pro Soccer Classic, a simple preseason match turned into something different
by Chris Kimball   |   Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Purple Pride – column on Orlando City SC (OCSC) & the Orlando & Central Florida area soccer scene.

It felt as if the stakes were higher than they should have been for a normal preseason match. After all, this was Orlando City SC against Toronto FC in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic. It should have been an amicable match between non-league competitors, 2 teams still breaking in their boots ahead of pivotal seasons.

But it felt as if the stakes were higher.

Maybe it was the crowd

It was a rain-drenched, packed house at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. If you still needed proof that intimate stadiums provide better game day atmosphere than large, half empty ones, this night was your epiphany. The WWSC in its current configuration (it will change once the regular season starts) is quaint by any measure. Although sparse on seating, on this night it was full of ambiance.

Before the match the Orlando City boys mingled with fans, shaking hands, taking selfies. Aurelien Collin, Julio Cesar and other MLS stars were there, too. Everyone was wet. Rain doesn't play favorites.

Then the Orlando players huddled against the barrier with friends and fans to watch the New York Red Bulls take on the Montreal Impact. Their eyes, like ours, were on the likes of Thierry Henry and Marco Di Vaio. They watched a hard fought match, for sure, but it was just a prelude.

When it was finally time for the Lions to take the field the unified voices of the Iron Lion Firm and the Ruckus bellowed throughout the complex. Game on.

The crowd seemed to be cosmically aligned with the players and their actions on the field. The tight confines of the WWSC allow fans to hear the player conversations, to speak with them, and to feel the wet spray of their slide tackles on a waterlogged pitch.

So in the 13th minute when Toronto scored the game's opening goal via a Kyle Bekker penalty kick, no thoughts were entertained of inevitable loss to a higher rated opponent. From their vantage point, the crowd could see the whites of their eyes.

Maybe it was the boss

Majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva was in the house, too. By all accounts da Silva is a first-class type of guy. He spent the better part of an hour before the match exchanging pleasantries with fans, even as he conversed with Brazilian goalkeeper Cesar, and strategized (one presumes) with team VP Paul McDonough.

Despite his amiable personality and Rubenesque frame, he is still the boss. One could sense it in OCSC manager Adrian Heath's wink and quick handshake just prior to the match. Respect is due, it implied.

Once the game started da Silva headed to his seat atop the bleachers. Make no mistake that the players knew he was there. On this night they wanted to perform.

Da Silva must have enjoyed watching his first MLS signing, midfielder Kevin Molino, seemingly pick the Lions up from the grass after going down a goal. Molino provided heavy pressure to close out the first half, creating two solid scoring chances, and seemed to be the best player on the field.

Maybe it was the opponent

Toronto FC is a newly renovated squad of star players, including Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, and Julio Cesar. With their seemingly bottomless signing budget they are poised to become the new team other cities love to hate.

But under Adrian Heath's stewardship Orlando City has never shied away from a challenge. As they have previously shown in U.S. Open Cup matches, they are not intimidated by MLS competition.

Darwin Ceren, Dennis Chin and Austin da Luz worked well together in the second half. They broke through the Toronto defense. In quick succession Chin had several platter-served, scoring chances. He should have put one away; it was not his best performance. But Toronto's goalkeeper was up to the task.

Maybe it was Jamie Watson.

On Thursday, Lion Nation was stunned to hear that longtime midfielder, and fan über-favorite, Jamie Watson was transferring to Minnesota United FC. Having become crowded out of the Orlando midfield by promising new arrivals, he and the team agreed a move was necessary. Heath called it a "sad day" for the organization.

On Friday, Watson tweeted a classy, heartfelt "thank you" letter to the fans in which he said he was "overwhelmed with emotion."

Then, during Saturday's match, Watson appeared for a final curtain call but not as a player, as a fan. Standing with the supporters groups behind goal, they sang and cheered together. The oft-heard "Ja-mie Wat-son" chant rang across the pitch.

So it was fitting that as arguably the most beloved Orlando City player there has ever been was saying goodbye, an essentially anonymous Lion, trialist Mark Howard, belted home the final, equalizing goal in the closing minutes of play.

The way the crowd erupted felt as though as they had just won the USLPRO championship game, not drawn even in a meaningless preseason match.

The stakes were higher, after all.

NEXT UP: February 26 - Orlando City vs. Columbus Crew, ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex, Kissimmee, Fla. 6pm EST.


William & Mary
Club Domestic:
Orlando City
Club Foreign:
Tottenham Hotspur
Christopher is editor of Orlando Soccer Daily, covering the beautiful game for central Florida. A retired music exec turned soccer fanatic, he landed in Florida via Paris & Boston. When not working he's usually chasing after his 2 sons or suffering after