It’s safe to say that Orlando City fans were split between those who were more optimistic than everyone else about the Lions’ chances in the MLS is Back Tournament and those who were less optimistic than everyone else about the Lions’ chances in the MLS is Back Tournament. After all, we’ve all been hurt before.
We were optimistic entering the league under Adrian Heath. Most of us felt an MLS Cup-winning coach like Jason Kreis could help the team take a step forward. Many believed James O’Connor was the best young coach available and the team could grow along with him in the game. Well, none of that actually worked out.
Oscar Pareja’s hiring gave Orlando City fans hope but it was a guarded hope. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four times, well…[/drinks bleach]. Some moves were made in the off-season which were generally met with nods of approval but only the addition of Peruvian international goalkeeper Pedro Gallese seemed like a “big” move.
So it’s understandable that Orlando entered MLS is Back as an underdog. We didn’t know what to expect exactly, but when Group A still had six teams in it and Orlando had matches against two expansion clubs, there was optimism that a trip to the knockout rounds was possible, if not precisely a given. Then a couple of teams pulled out due to coronavirus infections, MLS shuffled the groups, and the Lions’ road got tougher.
An emotional win over new “rival” Inter Miami CF brought more optimism. Then Gallese put his full range of skills on display against New York City FC, and suddenly the Lions were through the group stage after only two matches. Next came a draw against a good Philadelphia side in which Orlando spent stretches looking very much like the better side and City had captured Group A.
“The game rewarded them because they were the best team on the field.” – Oscar Pareja on his Lions vs. LAFC
But people around the league weren’t buying any stock in Orlando City, and why would they? The Lions had proven nothing. And a slim 1-0 win over Montreal in the Round of 16 did nothing to change that perception. Pundits spoke of Orlando as a team that was starting to improve, and rightfully pointing at Pareja for the club looking competent at last, but the team was still not seen as a “good” team.
NBC Sports’ preview of the quarterfinals ran with the headline, “LAFC favorites to reach MLS is Back semis; who joins them?” While the piece itself called the match “intriguing,” it did not make it seem like anything other than a formality before LAFC moved on to the semis. Meanwhile, ESPN wants to know if Orlando City is for real.
“Probably that’s a good tool to use, [but] our players don’t need it,” Pareja said when asked if he motivates his players by playing the underdog card. “They know where they’re going and I’m very sure that they know who they are and that’s what is important. What others think about them is irrelevant at this moment because we are in our building mode and that’s what I feel. They’re just going and moving forward. Obviously in soccer there’s many people who want to say things and if we’re not the favorites to win, well then we accept that. It’s normal, but we will continue to improve and one day we will be.”
But those who watched Friday night’s match saw something beyond intriguing. Orlando was the better side for just about the entire game — particularly in the first half. The exception to that came after LAFC had scored and Orlando was forced to chase the game. But don’t take my word for it. That’s exactly what Pareja said and both Nani and Joao Moutinho echoed that in Friday’s press conference.
“The game rewarded them because they were the best team on the field,” he said.
The Lions built a 7-0 advantage in shots in the opening 45 minutes against the most explosive offense in MLS, and didn’t bunker to do it. In fact, they played toe-to-toe with the MLS heavyweights. The second half started similarly and, in fact, it seemed Orlando would finally take its deserved lead in the 57th minute on a penalty won by speedy fullback Ruan and taken by team captain Nani — a guy who had previously scored on a must-make penalty in a Champions League final.
The captain left his penalty where LAFC goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer could reach it and, shortly after that, Sebas Mendez made the defensive third turnover that the Lions had done so well to avoid all night, handing LAFC a 1-0 lead on a transition goal by Bradley Wright-Phillips on his team’s first shot. Trailing, Orlando was forced to open up a bit and that led to LAFC getting more opportunities.
“We are trying to make a statement here. We are trying to show the other teams that we are coming out here to play and to impose our game on them.” – Joao Moutinho
That’s when Gallese again showed why he was a worthy off-season acquisition, turning Diego Rossi — MLS is Back’s leading scorer — aside multiple times to keep the deficit at just one. The Lions began to run out of gas — and healthy starters, with Robin Jansson joining Chris Mueller on the bench — as time wound down. But the hallmark of this team since joining MLS is late-game heroics. Sometimes for, but just as often against. The 2020 version, under Pareja, looked for the former and found it.
Ruan sent a deadly cross in for Santiago Patino, forcing Tristan Blackmon to make an emergency sliding challenge. He kept the ball from Patino’s foot in front of goal, but conceded a corner. Nani delivered a perfect back-post ball and Moutinho beat Jordan Harvey to it, heading home against his old team and sending the game to a penalty shootout.
“We want to be the protagonists, it doesn’t matter who we are up against,” Moutinho said. “We knew that they had a great team. They have very good forwards and midfielders but we also knew that we had great energy, starting with our front line pressing them from the get-go. We are trying to make a statement here. We are trying to show the other teams that we are coming out here to play and to impose our game on them.”
While that might have been heartbreaking for LAFC supporters, it was the least the Lions deserved for the performance. Sure, they needed to be sharper in front of goal, but they did so many things well that to not at least have a chance to move on would have been an unjust ending.
Pareja has a word for his players when they take the field — the one Moutinho used in the above quote: “protagonist,” meaning the main character of the story. You hear it repeatedly in every press conference from both Papi and his players. He wants his team to be the game’s protagonists. To achieve this, he asks his players to express themselves with intensity and focus. You don’t get much more focused than a perfect five-for-five performance in a nervy penalty shootout with the semifinals on the line. In fact, three of Orlando’s five shooters were defenders. All of them picked their spot well and hit their penalty with authority.
“We kept fighting. Our team was amazing,” Nani said. “Every player who was on the field. It was fantastic — the determination, the quality of football we put on the field, the courage, the desire to win. I think we deserved at the end (that) we scored a goal because of everything we put on the field and obviously on the penalty kicks we put more concentration, we put more determination, and the best team won the game.”
When Nani connected with the final kick of the match, everyone talked about Orlando “stunning” LAFC and the word “upset” found its way into every match recap and nearly every headline. And when you look at the talent across the board and the recent history of the two sides, it was exactly that. But if you watched the match, it wasn’t an upset at all. Orlando went out onto the field and earned that appearance in the semifinals.
“Give respect to (our) football.” – Nani
LAFC can point to having shorter rest — a legit gripe, perhaps — but the Lions were the ones who appeared more out of gas in the 80th minute. Gallese was forced to make vital saves in the 81st and 88th minutes and LAFC looked more likely to score a second and kill the game than Orlando did to go on and tie it up at that point. But the Lions reached down into their reserves and mounted one more attack, with perhaps the last of Ruan’s energy to get forward. Orlando executed, and here we are.
“I would like to say, pay attention to our team with good eyes — good eyes — and give respect to the football,” Nani said after the match. “Because we’ve been working hard and we’re going to continue to work hard just to play our football and try to improve. We are a team who are improving our football, but to respect our football is very important.”
He’s not wrong. Pareja has this team playing well-organized soccer and the Lions — to a man — believe they belong on the field with anyone. You could see it in Kyle Smith’s perfect penalty. In Patino’s diagonal run to try to get onto Ruan’s cross. In Nani’s excellent cross for the tying assist and steely nerves to bury the decisive penalty.
These are the new Lions. They may not win this tournament. But if this year’s Orlando City finally makes the MLS Cup playoffs (if there’s a continuation to the regular season), it should surprise absolutely no one at this point. Orlando has earned that much with its 3-0-2 July.
“They were patient in the difficult moments and I want to highlight that,” Pareja said about Friday’s performance. “That’s the heart of the team and the club. We want to share that with our fans and the people who are just starting to believe and the people who have believed in us all the time. We’re ready to move forward.”
Reflecting on Eight Years with The Mane Land
A look back over my time with The Mane Land (so far).
As of last week, I have been a contributor at The Mane Land for eight years. That’s longer than I’ve ever been at any of my actual jobs in my life. There are literally only a couple of people who have been with the site longer, but I’m still amazed at how long it’s been. This is not to say I’m going anywhere, but rather I wanted to take the opportunity to look back at the past eight years, and look ahead to the future.
Unlike some, I didn’t come to be a supporter of Orlando City until it was announced that the club was joining MLS. At the time, I was contemplating picking a club to follow in MLS, but being in Tallahassee, there were no nearby options at that time. I considered FC Dallas and D.C. United, given the two were geographically closer in proximity to me than any others. Fortunately, it was literally while I was considering my options that the announcement was made regarding Orlando City’s jump to MLS. It was an easy decision.
As I do in many aspects of my life, I immediately started researching my new club, which led me to the content being produced by The Mane Land. There was also an article on the site titled “Join The Mane Land Staff.” I had often over the years internally bemoaned that I rarely used my Bachelor’s degree in English, and the desire to write welled up in me so much that I emailed the staff.
In response, one of our former editors, Andrew Marcinko, contacted me and said “I think your voice would be a great fit on TML.” He asked me to submit a Fan Post (those went away with our presence on SBN), and then another piece for review. Following that, our founder and managing editor, Michael Citro, emailed me to welcome me to the staff. I had no idea at the time how big a part of my life this blog would become.
I started out writing Monday’s Lions Links — often one of the more difficult days to write — and a feature piece. It’s been many years gone by now, but there was a time when the feature piece was “Pride Pub,” an ongoing series that paired craft beer and good food based on Orlando City’s opponent. I can tell you that the research for that was very enjoyable, and I still use some of the recipes I found to this day.
Eventually, I started contributing more match coverage and analytical pieces. Staff came and went, but I never thought to leave since I was enjoying myself. Sometime after that, I was promoted to senior columnist, for which I’m grateful. I can without reservation say that I’m a better writer thanks to my time with the site, and from working with such excellent staff.
In November of 2016, Michael asked if I wanted to give co-hosting The Mane Land PawedCast a try. My first recording was for Episode 71. We just recorded Episode 354, and with the exception of maybe two or three episodes, I have been on every single one of 283 episodes over the last six plus years. Michael and I have spent a lot of time talking on and off the podcast over the years, and I’m proud of what we have produced and to call him my friend.
We recently added an Orlando Pride-specific podcast called Skopurp: An Orlando Pride PawedCast. For years we wanted to give the Pride the time and attention the club deserves. Now, it is a reality, but one that I ask you to listen to and share. I’ll even put out that although Michael and I are the current hosts, we merely consider ourselves stewards and are hoping to get others to come onboard and eventually take it to the next level.
When I started with The Mane Land, the site had just made the move from a free WordPress site to the SBNation network. It was a big deal, and for many years it was a good partnership. Of course that all came to an end not too long ago, and our blog went the independent route thanks to the incredibly generous support of our readers and listeners. In fact, if you want to be one of those supporting our efforts, please go to our Buy Me A Coffee site to become a member. The move has allowed a flexibility we didn’t have before, but I really want others to have the same sense of joy and accomplishment that I have as a member of our staff.
At one point we had nearly twice the staff that we do now, and as you know, many hands make light work. The opposite of that is also true. I genuinely believe that there must be others out there with the same passion for Orlando City as I have — with the same desire to have their voice heard, whether through the written word or on a podcast. I promise you there is an opportunity to contribute here with us. Our internal discussions are informative, engaging, and often funny. Please consider joining us, as I did eight years ago. I haven’t regretted it and I know you won’t either.
I want to thank all of those who contributed to The Mane Land over the years. There are many that I am still in touch with, though they are no longer a part of the staff. Of course, the current staff are a pleasure to work with, and I appreciate their dedication to what we are trying to do.
Finally, I want to thank the readers and listeners over the years. From those who regularly comment on our articles, to those that I’ve personally met at matches or even randomly on the street, you are a big reason that we do all of this. You are a big reason why I’ve been doing this for the better part of a decade. it is always a genuine pleasure hearing your thoughts or simply sharing a moment of joy together — U.S. Open Cup final, anyone?
So, thank you. I look forward to many more years of this journey together.
The Mane Land Announces Membership Program
Maximize your Mane Land experience with our new TML membership program while supporting our independent efforts.
Hello, readers of The Mane Land and listeners of our podcasts. Before you start reading this, please note that the most important part of this post is at the end. So, don’t stop until you get to the bottom.
You may recall that when we left SBNation to become independent, we really weren’t sure the best way to go about that. Many of our readers and listeners generously offered to help us make that transition, but we still weren’t sure the best path forward, so we took a poll.
The poll was pretty much split down the middle between those who preferred a one-time, Kickstarter-style campaign (which we did, and those of you who stepped up to help completely blew us away!) and those who favored a Patreon-style, subscription-based membership with extra perks. In fact, the member subscriptions option got a few more votes in our poll.
The folks who took part in our GoFundMe fundraiser were fantastic and are now immortalized on this very site on the “Our Founders” page. But we had always planned to give folks the option to choose whichever method of support they preferred and we tried to communicate that throughout the process. It took a little longer than expected to get up and running, but our membership subscription program is now in place! (You may notice the fancy new banner ad about it on the home page, echoed below.)
Part of that delay was thinking up something that didn’t encroach on the benefits we gave our Founders. Those folks helped us get started and deserve the exclusivity of the perks they got. The other part of the delay is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. (However, for you guys, I’m willing to be cloned.)
We have utilized the popular Buy Me a Coffee platform to run this program. You can find the basics here. The Mane Land premium membership program includes three tiers of membership, as well as the option to click on the “Support” tab for those who just want to help us out whenever, without joining the program or adding any recurring “appointment-based” payments to their budgets. We love that feature of Buy Me a Coffee (or “Buy Us a Beer” in our case…you drink what you like).
For those who do choose to become members, we hope we have provided value and we are planning to add benefits along the way, in addition to providing special giveaways, events, etc. (more on that below). We have also provided subscription options — with monthly or annual memberships. The annual cost essentially gives you 12 months for the price of 10.
The current membership benefits depend on which level of support you choose — Homegrown Player, TAM Player, or Designated Player level. Each level includes all benefits from the lower tiers, with additional benefits for each higher level.
Homegrown Player: This is a basic set-it-and-forget-it level of support for The Mane Land, providing a way for our readers and podcast listeners to contribute to the success of TML‘s independence goals. We want to compensate our current volunteers, replace lost income of those who previously received small stipends from being part of the SBNation network, add photographers, attract new writers, and expand our coverage. Additionally, each Homegrown Player Level member will be recognized in a Lion Links column, which is still typically our most widely read post of each day and one of the top daily links columns among soccer sites. Homegrown Player Level members will also be included in any future prize drawings we have or events we host and may be subject to future benefits as they are added.
TAM Player: In addition to Homegrown Player benefits, TAM Players will receive a new weekly e-newsletter in their inbox (unless you opt out…some people hate email). These will be informal missives from myself, other TML writers, or a combination, discussing what’s on our mind regarding Orlando City, the Pride, OCB, or soccer in general. Think of it as an extra post from our site that may cover multiple topics. Additionally, you’ll get a 10% discount from our web shop items that we control (presently, that means everything except our listed MLS Shop items). We will definitely have more benefits coming for this level soon and will look for opportunities to include additional benefits as they become available.
Designated Player: This limited availability level of support includes all perks from the Homegrown and TAM levels, but it goes beyond. Your discount at our webshop (for items we control) will be 15% off. Additionally, we’ll send you Zoom links to watch us “make the doughnuts” whenever we record the podcast. This includes when we interview guests. You’ll see how the sausage is made behind the scenes and everything that we say, some of which will end up on the cutting room floor before the final podcast is sent out. This includes both The Mane Land PawedCast and SkoPurp Soccer: An Orlando Pride PawedCast. And after two months of membership you can commission a bonus episode of either podcast simply by letting us know what topic you want us to cover. Think of this as an extended Ask Us Anything. We’ll do a whole show about your topic and you can even join us to discuss it if you wish.
The DP Level will certainly have additional benefits tacked on as we move forward. It is currently limited to 40 members but could be expanded slightly depending on demand and our Zoom attendance.
Future Benefits / Benefits Under Consideration
While we won’t be able to schedule these due to the random nature of items falling into our hands, there will be periodic prize giveaways in drawings that include all of our members, regardless of level. The catch is that you get one entry per level of support, meaning Homegrown Player Level members will get one entry per prize drawing, TAM Player Level members will get two entries per drawing, and Designated Player Level members get three entries for prize drawings. Some of the kinds of items we have come across in the past include match tickets, trinkets, posters, scarves, and so on.
We are planning to add a message board to our website, well…soon-ish is the word that comes to mind. The plan for the message board is to build our community and further the discussion about the club. As part of this, we’re planning an exclusive, members-only area of that message board that TAM and DP members can access. This will be a place our staff can share informational nuggets we can’t necessarily write stories about for various reasons and interact with our members on a daily basis.
Other things in the works include meet-and-greets/watch parties where you can chat with TML staff members and catch a road match with a bunch of like-minded Orlando City/Pride fans while we all cheer on the team together. There may also be other informal outings with one or more members of the staff, organized fantasy leagues, random Zoom calls for Q&A sessions, and perhaps even some organized group outings for Orlando City / Pride matches, national team games, etc.
The Most Important Part of This Post
Remember at the top of this post, when I said the most important part is at the bottom? Well, that seems like a long time ago, now, so it’s OK if you’ve already forgotten.
The most important part of our membership program is you. We want your feedback so we can make this program something that interests and excites you. We want to know what you like and dislike about this program. We want to know if there are some things we didn’t think of that interest you. If you like what we’re offering, tell us! If you hate what we’re offering, we want to know what you’d prefer instead or in addition. If you want to go drinking with Dave, we can probably arrange that, but it’ll be a unique tier and we’ll have to figure out the cost of that.
No idea is too crazy to suggest, even if it’s too insane for us to actually offer. Let us know what you want from your subscription and we’ll see if that’s something we can do. We’ll make it easy for you by putting the form right here below this post, which is now concluded.
Where do I even start? When we were told in January that SBNation was pulling its support of The Mane Land and other MLS and NHL blogs — and many podcasts — I was devastated. The site had become my new baby in September of 2014 and after eight and a half years, I wasn’t ready to let it go.
I was in a pickle. I couldn’t afford to lose the monthly stipend I had been getting from SBNation to manage the site and provide a steady stream of content. It wasn’t that it was a huge monthly sum, but it mostly covered my car payment. That car was purchased when my salary was higher. The pandemic hit my day job like it did to many, and after a four-month layoff, I got my old job back but not at the same rate. So, imagine taking a pay decrease at work and then, on top of that, losing the amount you spend per month on your car payment. There was simply no way to launch The Mane Land independently, I thought, because I simply couldn’t cover the startup costs. Even with some generous offers from the staff to pitch in, there simply wasn’t a way.
Once we took the news public, there was an outpouring of support on social media. We appreciated both the pledges to help out that we got from the community and the signal boosting that the national media gave blogs like ours. Those national folks rely on local reporting for background.
Encouraged by this outpouring of public support, I met with the TML staff and we threw some ideas around. We polled our Twitter followers to see how our community would prefer to show their support. We got pretty close to a 50/50 split between those who wanted to provide a one-time donation via a Kickstarter or GoFundMe crowdsourcing effort, and those who would prefer some sort of premium subscription add-on service like Patreon or Buy Me a Coffee.
We didn’t get a lot of responses to that poll, but we decided as a group that since the results were so similar, we would offer both and let the public choose one path, the other, or even both. (Stay tuned for news soon-ish on the premium subscription level, but rest assured, everything you’ve been getting for free at TML will remain free!)
I was, admittedly, skeptical that we could raise enough startup money to create a private business, pay for hosting a new site and two podcasts (having long wanted to give the Orlando Pride their own unique show), registering a domain, paying for some design work and consulting, and any unexpected expenses that might come up. However, I thought we’d at least give it a try.
Then the amazing Orlando City, Orlando Pride, and TML community got involved. You guys pushed us past our bare minimum goal in just four and a half hours when our fundraiser went live on March 1. We reset our goal and you met that by midnight. We reset our goal again, to the dream total we discussed on our initial staff Zoom chat and you met that by that first weekend.
Stunned. Humbled. Amazed. Touched. All of these words apply to how that made us feel, but they don’t quite cover it. I think we all felt an enormous responsibility, as well. We felt a mandate to provide you the best site and the best coverage we can.
We got everything we needed to run the site for two years, even if we don’t earn a penny after our launch — and we plan to try, via advertising, a Patreon (or similar) program, an online shop, affiliate links, and anything else we can think of. But we decided to leave the GoFundMe open through the end of March, just in case there were folks who wanted to contribute but needed to wait for payday, or if more people wanted to become founding members of this new site.
Now, here we are. You guys did this. We’re here because of you. And this site isn’t quite what it will become. I’m still learning my way around WordPress, after being away from it for years. There’s more to build, and some of the things you’re seeing on this site now will be improved in the future. We’ll continue to tweak it, add things, and upgrade as we go.
For now, I just want to welcome you to your new online home. On behalf of our entire staff, I thank our founding members, who are now immortalized on this site in our founders section. If you weren’t able to contribute to our transition from SBNation’s network to an autonomous and independent, new version of The Mane Land, you can thank the folks on our founders page, because without them, we wouldn’t be here. And if you still want to help out, we’ve got more things on the way.
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