Orlando City’s second season in MLS kicked off Sunday afternoon in front of a near capacity crowd of 60,147 at the Florida Citrus Bowl. The Lions rallied late to salvage a 2-2 draw with visitors Real Salt Lake in the most dramatic way imaginable – two stoppage time goals bringing back memories for some of how Manchester United defeated Bayern Munich with two stoppage time goals in the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final.
The club followed up a successful first season with a tumultuous offseason has high hopes entering 2016. These hopes hinge largely on the return of Kevin Molino and the signing of Antonio Nocerino. However for Sunday’s opener both Nocerino and global superstar Kaka were unavailable leaving Brek Shea who normally plays as a left-sided midfielder or leftback as the playmaker.
A humid day combined with a rare 2pm kickoff made things chippy for this affair – Orlando City took the initiative early and were able to create a few half chances early, forcing Real Salt Lake’s American international keeper Nick Rimando into one real good save. A red card for Demar Phillips in minute 20 reduced the visitors to ten men and theoretically should have given Orlando all of the advantage they needed in front of a loud home crowd to push on and grab all three points on offer.
But instead it was the visitors who took the initiative sitting deep but working hard defensively and hitting the Lions on the break. Real’s counterattack was spurred by great defensive work from Kyle Beckerman, a starter for the United States in the last World Cup and in minute 26, RSL attacker Joao Plata got behind the Orlando defense and drew a penalty. Plata stepped up and converted the spot kick and from that point forward until the final minutes, Real Salt Lake looked very comfortable.
Orlando lost Captain Darwin Ceren to a controversial red card in minute 45 and looked decidedly second best from that point forward. The entire second half was played 10 versus 10, a rarity in this sport. However, both teams being reduced to ten men did allow for more space and movement off the ball on the Citrus Bowl turf. The result was an open second half where both sides were pushing forward while struggling to maintain a regimented tactical shape.
Real Salt Lake added a second goal in minute 66, when Plata connected with an outstanding cross from Tony Beltran. The Lions created some late chances after Adrian Winter was brought on and Shea dropped to left back but Rimando and the Real Salt Lake defense nearly escaped without conceding. But dramatically a very late goal to Cyle Larin in second half stoppage time reduced the deficit to 2-1 and then dramatically at the death Winter got an equalizer as Salt Lake’s defense collapsed. The late drama sent the Citrus Bowl into a frenzy, though many fans had left early since the Lions sat two goals behind entering second half stoppage time.
The most positive sign for Orlando City beyond the late fightback was that Molino who last played competitively last April looked bright on his return linking up regularly in attacking areas with Cyle Larin, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year. Molino’s positive return will no doubt yield dividends for the Lions going forward.
Orlando will take the point given the circumstances and move on to face Chicago this Friday. The Fire dropped its season opener to New York City FC 4-3 at Toyota Park.