LAFC versus Orlando SC. That’s not something I thought I’d be writing this far into the MLS Is Back tournament. Yet, Orlando City SC, the bubble’s hometown team, formerly nicknamed the unluckiest expansion team in MLS, has shown up when it matters throughout this tournament, surprising Inter Miami, NYCFC, Philadelphia, Montreal Impact and now, its latest opponent, the favored LAFC who was knocked out in a shootout 1(4)-1(5). Much will be made of LAFC’s in like a lion, out like a lamb facade, and not enough will be made of Orlando’s torpedo approach tonight. “It certainly wasn’t our sharpest football night,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley flatly echoes the sentiment on everyone’s lips at the start of his final tournament press conference.
Orlando City will now head to the semifinals after making all five of their penalty kicks. In the shootout, Jordan Harvey missed for LAFC, while Latif Blessing redeemed himself after his last try (in LAFC’s only other PK shootout). And Orlando’s still sublime Nani scored the clincher, redeeming himself for a missed PK against Kenneth Vermeer earlier in regulation time.
While LAFC’s normal attacking style was in idle for most of regulation time, Kenneth Vermeer was busy. He made a total of 5 saves throughout the night, edging out his counterpart, Pedro Gallese by one save. Most memorably, in the 57th minute, Vermeer surprisingly saved a Nani penalty kick. But almost as though the air had been taken out of their tires, a deflated LAFC did not have a shot on goal for the first 60 minutes, and Orlando accomplished a feat no other MLS team had been able to do all month. Keep the onslaught of LAFC scoring at bay. Orlando dominated in possession, goal efforts, passing accuracy, and in almost every way that matters, until Bradley Wright-Phillips tucked away a goal from inside the box in the 60th minute. But that goal was to be BWP’s fourth and last of the tournament.
Orlando pressed on, until the end of the nail biter when LAFC’s 2018 Superdraft selection, Joao Moutinho, in the 90th minute, lifted himself high on a Nani corner kick, heading in the equalizer for Orlando, eventually forcing the match to conclude in a shootout. And, after that long heated battle, his team was rewarded for that perseverance with their rightful spot in the Semifinals. “The game rewarded them. They were the best team on the field. They were patient in the difficult moments and I want to highlight that. That is the heart of the team and club. We’re ready to move forward,” a humble yet proud Oscar Pareja announced, as his post-game press conference began. For him, it took six games to show how to turn around a team down on their luck. And while, Orlando’s future looks open and full of possibilities, when Bob Bradley was asked about what’s next for LAFC, his stale reply couldn’t hide his disappointment, “We’re not clear… Make sure we can get guys recovered. The time here our players have handled extremely well.” Indeed, with a pandemic looming overhead, and California still reeling from a surge of cases and hospitalizations, with LA Galaxy II’s outbreak and the subsequent precautionary stoppage to practices for their first team this week, one wonders what lies ahead for LAFC. A return to an unknown reality where life outside the bubble is far from protected, and one where soccer may end up taking a back seat to more pressing concerns.
featured image: Photo credit: Devin L’Amoreaux and Matthew Stith| MLS