New stadium? Check. Home opener on national TV? Check. Three points? Check.
Orlando City (1-0-0, 3 points) finally opened its brand new downtown stadium in front of a packed house of 25,527, and the party went almost exactly as planned. Thanks to an early goal from Cyle Larin, the Lions bagged their first victory of the 2017 season with a 1-0 win over New York City FC (0-1-0, 0 points) at Orlando City Stadium.
“Extremely pleased to get a result. Happy to give the fans something to be excited about,” Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis said after the match. “The fans were absolutely fantastic, the crowd was great. The level of work and commitment and togetherness by our team was off the charts. But we’ve got a lot of work to do, we know that.”
The party started early in the day, with fans filing into the stadium as soon as four hours before the match. The pre-game festivities added some special flare, with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, club owner Flavio Augusto da Silva, and Life President Phil Rawlins addressing the fans, dedicating this as their day.
The National Anthem, sung by the entire stadium, was followed by the first tifo and smoke display of the season. Then the party really took off.
Before the purple smoke really ever cleared out of the stadium, Cyle Larin found the back of the net for Orlando City in the 15th minute, connecting his head to the end of a perfectly served cross into the box by Giles Barnes — on for an injured Kaká, who was subbed out after 11 minutes — to bounce the ball past Sean Johnson for his first goal of the season, and the first in the new stadium.
After that, Orlando City fell back deep into its third of the pitch and NYCFC took control of the game, in which it would finish with 68 percent of possession.
“That didn’t make me happy,” Kreis said. “We did some things well tonight and we didn’t do some things well — mostly when we didn’t have the ball. I think there’s lot of reasons for that, but it will be a big focus for us that we need to value the ball a lot more.”
As a unit, Orlando City put in a defensive performance that escaped the team much of last season, with Joe Bendik putting in, arguably, the top performance of the night. The 27-year-old made seven saves, including a couple of big ones, both early and late in the match.
Bendik’s first important save came in the 32nd minute, as he stopped a close range effort from Alexander Ring inside the penalty area. The Orlando City goalkeeper rose to the occasion again in the 86th minute, diving to stop a long range effort from Sean Okoli. NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira called Bendik the Man of the Match for Orlando City in his post-game comments and Kreis had similar thoughts regarding the effort put in by not only Bendik but the rest of Orlando’s defensive unit.
“I do think that in times past, and even with what we had last year, I do think this game would have ended differently — the team spirit would have buckled and there would have been a mistake that would have cost us,” Kreis noted. “And tonight the guys continued to fight, they continued to stay together. There were some mistakes happening — a lot of mistakes happening — and they had positive reactions to those mistakes and made big plays.”
But while the result on the pitch was good, the next big result for Orlando City fans will come off the grass when Kaká gets evaluations by Orlando Health doctors on Monday. The Lions’ captain and star player left the match after going down inside the first 10 minutes. He left in the 11th with what appeared to be a left hamstring injury, and will be further evaluated in the coming days. While there’s no official word on his injury yet, Kreis sounded pessimistic post-game, saying, “it looks like it could be a very serious injury.”
“Very, very disappointed for Ricky because he’s worked extremely hard in the preseason,” Kreis said. “This was a huge night for him, and I think everybody could see the energy he was already putting in through the first 11 minutes, and I think this was going to be a special night for him. Very disappointed, but the team moved on and that’s a positive.”
With three points in hand, the Lions will now have a short turnaround into Week 2 of the season as the club heads north for a match-up against the New England Revolution on Saturday, March 11.