The Heart of a Franchise: Lions Continue in MLS Cup Playoffs

The Heart of a Franchise: Lions Continue in Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs

I don’t even know where to begin.

For a Club that has seen its fair share of the dramatics in six MLS seasons, it was only fitting that the first postseason match in its history would finish in one of the wildest, most maddening ways any of us will likely ever see. 

After both the Lions and Pigeons each found the back of the net inside the first 10 minutes of play, the 2015 expansion counterparts remained at a deadlock for the rest of the afternoon, with Lions goalkeeper Pedro Gallese matching his season-high saves total, registering six in the match.

With the two sides appearing evenly matched throughout the majority of the fixture, that all changed when Lions defender Ruan was shown a red card in the 87th minute of play, forcing the home side to play a man down in what ended up being 43 minutes of action.

While numerically at a disadvantage, City continued to push forward, creating chances and fiending off the energy provided from the sold out, reduced capacity crowd inside Exploria Stadium. However, neither side was able to find the back of the net leading to a penalty shootout to decide the match.

What followed was something that nobody could have predicted.

In the first attempt for the visitors, Maxi Moralez hit the crossbar to give the Lions the opportunity for an early advantage, one they took with Tesho Akindele, Andrés Perea, Antonio Carlos and Júnior Urso all converting from the spot.

Then came the drama.

In the fifth attempt by NYCFC, Valentín Castellanos hit a strike to the left side that was saved by Gallese, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The celebration ensued, the smoke was set off and all in the building began the party that came with the first playoff victory in Club history.

But not so fast.

After further review, it was ruled that Gallese was off his line and subsequently shown a yellow card, his second of the day to lead to his sending off. Following the controversial call, confusion ensued over whether backup goalkeeper Brian Rowe was allowed to enter the match.

Several minutes passed and Rowe entered the pitch on two separate occasions before it was ruled that he would not be allowed to sub on, forcing Rodrigo Schlegel to step into net. Castellanos then converted his second attempt before the Lions missed their next to put the two sides into sudden death.

Then it happened.

In the seventh round of penalties, NYCFC defender Gudmundur Thórainsson stepped up to the spot only to be denied by Schlegel, with the second celebration of the day commencing immediately after. 

“Rodri[go Schlegel] came and said ‘Papi, I can do it.’ Rodri told him [Pedro] ‘I was a goalkeeper when I was in the academy,’ so we just gave him the gloves and prayed,” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said of the moment. “He did an outstanding job on showing the personality. After what just happened, I can laugh, but believe me that this is insane.”

Following that came none other than Benji Michel, Orlando’s own Homegrown-product who scored the game-winning goal against Columbus just over two weeks prior to clinch this very match at Exploria Stadium. Michel stepped up and ripped in the game-winning shot to finally give the Lions the unlikeliest of victories.

There have been a number of moments this season that have shown how the culture instilled by Pareja has manifested amongst this team, but Saturday was an example unlike anything we have ever seen before.

From a lengthy stretch playing a man down, to the heroics of Schlegel and the composure of a 23-year-old Homegrown to seal the victory, the resilience and passion of this group truly was exemplified not just to those in Orlando, but to fans of the game worldwide. 

“The boys showed today the heart of this franchise. I would probably say that that showed the heart, the big heart that the players have and the franchise and the community have. It’s a representation of all of these emotions that have been there waiting to come out,” Pareja said. “Today, the game played with us in our minds too and put us in all these roller coasters of emotions. 

“It showed us the beauty of this sport, showed us the connection of the community with the players, but most importantly it just showed the heart of the players and that for me is incredible and it’s an honor for me to see that heart exposed.”

The Lions now turn their attention to Tuesday’s Philadelphia/New England match, set to face the winner of that fixture in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Sunday, Nov. 29. 

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September 11, 2020: Major League Soccer has announced the 2020 regular season schedule through the end of September. From September 18-27, each MLS club will compete in three regular season matches. Additional 2020 MLS regular season matches will be announced pending further developments regarding travel protocols. Attendance at matches will be determined in accordance with applicable state and local guidelines.