The Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League (NASL) upset Major League Soccer (MLS) host Orlando City SC 2-1 last night on a goal from Victor “PC” Giro in stoppage time of extra time.
A crowd of 3,162 braved an Orlando metropolitan area surrounded by ominous storm clouds to witness the Strikers defeat a MLS team (in regulation or extra time) for the first time in club history. It also snapped the Fort Lauderdale’s Modern Era record winless streak (penalty kick victories are officially considered draws) at seven games and it marked the first time that the Strikers have won a road game in the tournament.
It was a game that had a little of everything: end-to-end free-flowing attacking soccer, blistering counterattacks, great goalkeeping, lovely goals and physical, chippy play that saw 38 fouls whistled and six yellow cards and two reds issued between the two sides.
Throughout the opening half hour, Fort Lauderdale found a good measure of success working the flanks, whether through the young Brazilian PC or wing forward Geison Moura, drifting wide on the right to provide width while the fullback, Gabriel, sat deeper to slow the Orlando City counterattack. The continual probing helped the visitors create the better chances, and it wasn’t surprising that they struck first, in the 12th minute.
Geison Moura played a brilliant chip to Jose Angulo that beat the offside trap, and Angulo did the rest, slotting it home past Earl Edwards Jr. to give the visitors an early lead and send their vocal supporters group, Flight 19, into raptures.
Orlando responded quickly, however.
Kevin Molino won the ball with a tackle and made a magical run past four Fort Lauderdale defenders to level the game at 1-1. Molino was easily Orlando’s best player in the opening half, as he was involved in nearly every quality Lions sequence and was the only player for the MLS side who appeared cut from a different cloth than anyone in the Fort Lauderdale eleven.
But the Strikers weren’t finished in the opening half, earning a corner down the right channel in the 40th minute that saw Maicon Santos place a beautiful header toward the top right of the net, only to see an outstretched Edwards Jr. get just enough of the ball to deflect it off the woodwork. Angulo’s follow-up of the ricochet went directly into Edwards’ belly. Still, no one could question the resolve or effort put forth by the visitors in the opening half, as the NASL side very much looked like it belonged on the field with an in—state MLS counterpart.
Brek Shea indicated after the game he expected Fort Lauderdale to play with emotion and resolve.
“Any time a team from a lower division gets a chance to play a MLS team, it is their biggest game of the year,” Shea said. “Credit them. They won.”
Shea’s manager was less diplomatic. Asked if Fort Lauderdale did anything better than Orlando on the evening, Adrian Heath bluntly answered “No. Next question.”
Perhaps his frustration came because Orlando had plenty of chances to change the ultimate outcome, pouring on pressure in the second half.
Minutes after the second half began, Orlando City midfielder Harrison Heath dispossessed Julius James in the Fort Lauderdale area and immediately fired a shot that glanced off the far post.
Moments later, Antonio Nocerino beat his man down the right flank and forced Diego Restrepo into an acrobatic right-handed save that kept proceedings level. Orlando, pressuring higher up the field than in the first session, continued to generate chances, closing down the space and forcing Fort Lauderdale into turnovers. The Lions won multiple corner and free kicks and forced Restrepo into a series of saves and acrobatic punch clearances.
But for all the quality final balls, Orlando’s finishing failed them. Shea sailed a sitter over in the 63rd minute after a lovely flicked lay off from Tony Rocha. Hadji Barry saw multiple quality runs end with shots that were just over or off frame. Seb Hines missed the goal completely from four yards in stoppage time. And after entering the game late in the second half, Cyle Larin had a handful of chances go begging.
Adrian Heath lamented the missed opportunities after the game.
“We did well to generate chances with our pressure,” Heath said. “We had enough chances to win the game comfortably. We haven’t done that. When you leave a game 1-1, anything can happen.”
In the 70th minute, anything did, as both sides went down to ten men following a hard foul on Fort Lauderdale’s Geison Moura. As the teams exchanged words, it appeared Brek Shea took an elbow to the face, prompting Kevin Molino to retaliate by striking the Strikers PC in the face.
In the end, Molino and Fort Lauderdale’s Maicon Santos were shown red cards, resulting in ten on ten soccer.
After Orlando’s late flurry to close regulation time, extra time was end to end. The hosts had the first quality chance, winning a free kick at the top of the eighteen only to see Shea’s left footed chip sail hopelessly high and wide of Fort Lauderdale goalkeeper Restrepo.
Restrepo, who was voted TheCup.us Player of the Round once already and missed out on back-to-back awards by a single vote, was massive all evening for the Strikers. The former U.S. youth international was controlling his area all night, punching away and catching crosses and marshaling his defense. But without question, his finest save came late in the first extra time session when he stoned Harrison Heath’s brilliant, swerving effort at the far post. The save drew respectful applause from the soccer-savvy Orlando crowd, and assured the game went to the second session of extra time level at one.
For a moment it looked as if Restrepo, already an Open Cup hero for helping Fort Lauderdale win consecutive penalty shootouts to reach the Round of 16, would be called on for penalties yet again Wednesday night. But PC’s goal, a lightning quick counterattack off a quick and controversial restart, assured a winner without spot kicks. The speedy Fort Lauderdale fullback took the restart the length of the field, cut inside toward the eighteen, made two quick, lateral cuts and sent a clinical, low, screaming shot past Edwards Jr. to give Fort Lauderdale the lead, and ultimately, the victory and a spot in the US Open Cup quarterfinal.
It was a goal of tremendous quality, but not one that surprised Strikers captain Jean Marc Alexandre.
“PC is a tremendous player,” Alexandre said following the match. “He’s quick and dangerous on the break. He’s a guy who turned down several MLS sides to stay in Fort Lauderdale with the Strikers, and he showed he has the quality to compete at any level.”
For the Strikers, the next level will be the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup for the first time in club history. The win helped Fort Lauderdale become not just the last remaining NASL side in this year’s competition, but only the fourth NASL side to reach the quarterfinal round.
As the last remaining NASL team, they are awarded the $15,000 Division 2 prize money from the US Soccer Federation.
For Strikers manager Caio Zanardi, it was about respect.
“We have quality players. Many of our players have played at the highest levels,” Zanardi said. “Gabriel played for long stretches at the top level in Brazil. Jean Marc Alexandre just played at the Copa America. PC was a prized Corinthians player, who captained their youth teams and played for Brazil youth teams that won trophies. We knew we could compete.”