Orlando City advanced to their first Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Semifinal Wednesday night, defeating New York City FC in penalties in front of a rowdy 7,227 in attendance on a steamy night at Exploria Stadium.
One of two all-MLS Open Cup Quarterfinals, the matchup lived up to the billing as both teams fielded strong lineups and played a rollicking, back and forth, tense game that featured stark momentum changes, chaotic goals and last-minute heroism.
In the end, James O’Connor’s side won the day, thanks to an incredible- perhaps unlikely- star turn from goalkeeper Adam Grinwis, who made three vital saves in 120 minutes, controlled his area well and parried away two NYCFC penalties to secure the victory in spot kicks.
The match was a credit to the character of both teams, who entered the game playing on short rest, having struggled through Sunday league fixtures. Orlando City also suffered through a travel delay that pushed their return to Florida back a day, further limiting their rest ahead of this crucial quarterfinal.
This is what #USOC2019 is all ABOUT!?
? Highlights pic.twitter.com/Y45LLpXySk
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) July 11, 2019
O’Connor was pleased none of those hardships became an excuse, and even more proud of how his team found a result despite surrendering a heart wrenching late equalizer in regular time.
“We’ve talked about culture and having a next man up mentality. We’ve tried to build that from preseason, to get a level of trust and commitment in our performances,” O Connor said after the game. “The difference this year has been noticeable and we saw it matter tonight. It’s a special night for our club and we should savor it.”
“Being on the field at the end of the game, seeing the joy it brought to the crowd, that was amazing,” Chris Mueller said after the win. “We want to bring the first trophy to Orlando, that’s the mentality. But we’re going to enjoy this right now, making the first semifinal in club history. It’s a big moment.”
Early on, it didn’t look as if it would be Orlando’s night.
Despite the questions about fitness- or perhaps because of them– NYCFC seized the initiative early. The Pigeons dominated possession for the first twenty minutes, winning nearly every second ball and pinning Orlando City deep with terrific pressure from their wingbacks.
The hard work nearly paid off just under the ten-minute mark.
A searing run down the left flank by Ronald Matarrita saw the Costa Rican international latch onto a well-placed diagonal and fire a strong effort just wide of the far post from just inside the left edge of the eighteen.
Minutes later, Matarrita was again the source of NYCFC’s danger, pumping in a lovely ball that found the head of Maxime Chanot, who placed his header well only to be denied on a spectacular leaping save from Orlando City goalkeeper Adam Grinwis.
The hosts managed the early scares and came into the game late in the first half, nearly taking the lead themselves after a corner, when Nani played a strong cross to Sebastián Méndez, only to see the Ecuadorian strangely decide to hit the ball one-time and well-wide. Nevertheless, it was a statement of intent from the Lions that they didn’t plan on going quietly into the humid central Florida night.
Orlando City controlled the early stages of the second half. First, Chris Mueller made a sharp run through NYCFC’s center, only to be denied a shot on goal by a swarming Pigeons defense. Minutes later, it was Nani probing the NYCFC defense, playing a slicing ball to Kyle Smith whose ensuing cross just missed the extended leg of Mueller.
The early second half purple and gold onslaught wasn’t over, either.
After a corner, Nani’s effort was deflected but crossed again by Mueller, only to see a terrific effort Will Johnson miss just high and right. Next, it was Sacha Kljestan’s turn to nearly breakthrough as the veteran beat his defender with a tidy pirouette only to be denied a shot on frame by a timely Alexander Ring challenge.
A Juan Torres injury gave the Blues a moment to collect themselves at the hour mark, but the respite was only brief. After the restart, Nani latched onto a ball on the left flank and scorched his defender on the incut, slicing an inch perfect cross to an unmarked Chris Mueller at the far right post. Mueller’s head did the rest, easily beating Brad Stuver, who could do little beyond hopelessly appeal for offside.
Mueller has had a special year for Orlando, but O’Connor, predictably, saw a team effort.
“(Mueller) is an exciting young attacking player, one who plays with great composure. He took the header well, fantastic ball from Nani and all he had to do was place it. But credit Tesho for getting back onside- a testament to his character and intelligence. We made a number of good plays to score a good goal.”
Domènec Torrent went to his bench shortly after the Orlando goal, calling on Benfica loanee and US U-23 prospect Keaton Parks off the bench to try to stabilize the NYCFC left flank. Defensively, it worked, with Parks tucking centrally to solidify the spaces being exploited by Mueller, Méndez, and Kljestan. Offensively, however, the Pigeons lacked a creative spark outside of the existential threat created by their wingbacks.
Tempers flared late as late NYCFC substitute Valentin Castellanos put in a hard, late tackle on Orlando’s Robin Jannsson in the 83rd minute, earning a yellow card and jeers from the Orlando City Wall for his efforts. Torrent may have seen that moment as a sign of life for his side, and Castellanos nearly leveled proceedings two minutes afterward on a headed cross from Jesús Medina, only to see Grinwis beat him to the ball.
Less than two minutes later, Parks exploded through the channel with only one defender to beat, but took too heavy a touch and lost the ball– another chance to level squandered.
The Pigeons, however, would get one more glorious chance late in stoppage time- and this time, they would take it. Maxi Moralez, fresh off being named MLS Player of the Month in June, got a toe to the end of a 50/50 in a congested scramble in the eighteen, clipping the ball just past Adam Grinwis and two Orlando defenders to level proceedings at one and send what had been a jubilant home crowd into agonized disbelief.
In extra time, Orlando was happy to sit deep, defend and wait for penalties, rarely seeing the ball and not hurling bodies forward when they did. For the most part, it worked, though NYCFC nearly found a winner in the 112th minute when Jesus Medina played Castellanos through and the young Argentine’s well-struck, curling effort was parried away by the extended arms of Grinwis. That would be the best chance for either side in extra time, as the game headed to penalties knotted at one goal apiece.
.@NYCFC chose the opposite end of The Wall.
— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) July 11, 2019
In penalties, as Orlando supporters on the “Wall Side” raced from one side of the stadium to the other to cheer on their Lions.
O’Connor said that was a sight to see.
“To see them- bumrush their way over there or whatever you want to call it- was incredible. I’m so thankful for them. It provided us an immense lift and put us in the right frame of mind to win in penalties,” O’Connor said.
The Lions shot first, with Tesho Akindele burying the kick in the left corner and saluting the fans who made the trek. Alexander Ring was denied by Grinwis on the NYCFC opener, sending the LIons faithful into rapture. Their joy was short lived, as moments later, Dom Dwyer’s meek effort was saved by Brad Stuver and after NYCFC’s Anton Timmerholm connected, proceedings were again level. They would remain that way until the sixth penalty taker, when once again, Grinwis would come up huge for the purple and gold. Maxime Chanot stepped up and Grinwis read the penalty properly, punching the hard and low penalty away to send Orlando City to the semifinals.
“As a goalkeeper, those are the situations you dream of,” Grinwis said. “Growing up, you play penalty shootouts with friends and you want to be the hero. Usually, if you’re the goalkeeper, the idea is to not be noticed. But the team fought hard for 120 minutes, and I was just glad to come up big for them at the end too. I’m still trying to figure out where I am and what’s going on. It was surreal.”
It won’t get any easier for the Lions, who will face Atlanta United in the Semifinals, a club they’ve never defeated in a game of soccer. But for a club that has never won a trophy- indeed, never made a MLS Playoff appearance– this deep Open Cup run is a well-deserved gift to a tremendous and patient fanbase, and one Orlando City doesn’t want to end any time soon.