On emotional evening, Soccer comes second, but MLS is Back and Lions roar

MLS is Back Lions

Orlando, FL — Major League Soccer returned after a four-month hiatus with the first kick of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando. 

The match, the first ever Florida Derby (Florida Man Cup, if you will), between Orlando City and the expansion Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami, rightfully took a backseat early on to the pregame scene. Both teams took a knee to honor the Black Lives Matter movement and show their solidarity with the continued social movement to affirm the value of black lives and dismantle systemic racism and seek racial justice in the United States.

Joining them was a collection of black players from various MLS clubs, many of whom, donning BLM and other anti-racism movement shirts with messages such as “Black and Proud,” “Silence is Violence,” “Black All The Time” and gloves that said “Black Lives Matter,” raised their fists in the air for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of meditative silence. It was a powerful gesture and a nod, of course, to the horrific murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer this past May. 

“The demonstration led by the BPCMLS (Black Players for Change in MLS) made us all very proud. Equality and justice is what we want our sport to strive for,” Inter Miami manager Diego Alonso said following the game. 

“It was very powerful to put my fist up and be out there with so many people trying to make a change in this country,” Inter Miami forward Juan Agudelo said. 

Onto Football: Inter vs. Orlando City

After the powerful, solemn demonstration, the football seemed secondary and, given the empty venue, strange. However, it was played nonetheless. And when it ended, Orlando City had secured a 2-1 victory and full spoils in the first match of the tournament.

For the most part, the early moments of the match were controlled by Orlando, at least as far as possession was concerned. 

But in fact, it was Inter Miami, playing with a lone forward in Agudelo, who had the game’s best early chance. In the 9th minute, it was a streaking Matias Pellegrini who teed up Agudelo from the left, only to see the enigmatic forward miss a sitter from five yards and a clean angle.

However, Orlando pinned the Herons deep. Eventually, a slicing ball from Mauricip Pereyra found Chris Mueller in space and his hard and low shot was bravely denied by Inter Miami captain Luis Robles. 

Playing without the talismanic midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, who suffered a training injury earlier this week, Inter Miami lacked a conduit between their organized, compact back five and their attacking triad of Pellegrini, Agudelo and the pacy Lewis Morgan. That left the midfield Orlando City’s for the taking, and the Lions certainly dominated that stretch of real estate, denying the Herons much of the ball and as a result, any rhythm getting forward in the opening half. 

A tactical adjustment by Inter Miami manager Diego Alonso in moving Pellegrini centrally to support Miami’s gappy midfield after a hydration break opened the game up a bit at the half hour mark. Both sides had solid opportunities off set pieces to close the half. However, neither club could truly test the opposing keeper, with a sloppy first half ending 0-0. 

Second half brings sparks

Inter Miami upped their line of midfield confrontation in the second half. The move paid immediate dividends. With central midfielders Wil Trapp and Victor Ulloa finally pushing forward, the Herons opened enough space between the Orlando center backs for Pellegrini to find a gap in the channel and play a ball across the area to a late-running Agudelo, who this time made no mistake. The goal was Agudelo’s first professional goal since May 2019. It gave Inter Miami their second lead in club history. 

A scary moment followed the goal, when a loose elbow from Dom Dwyer — a player whose career is littered with loose elbows — found the throat of Inter Miami’s Andres Reyes. Reyes was removed by stretcher, after a frightening wait where he appeared to have trouble breathing. His injury — and the chance he’ll have to be treated at one of Orlando’s increasingly crowded hospitals — is a troubling reminder that outside the MLS Disney bubble, Florida is very much a state under siege by a surge in COVID-19 cases. 

There was no update on the extent of the Reyes injury after the match, according to a spokesperson for Inter Miami. What is certain is the Reyes injury hurt the strength of Inter Miami’s defensive spine, and it didn’t take long for the hosts to take advantage. 

Orlando equalized in the 70th minute. Oscar Pareja, having made a pair of changes in bringing on Sebas Mendez and Tesho Akindele, was quickly rewarded.  

It was, as ever, Nani at the heart of things, with the Portuguese legend slaloming down the left flank before delivering a delicious ball at the far post to Mueller, who got in behind Ben Sweat and touched the ball past a lunging Robles. A good holding run by Akindele centrally also helped pry defenders away from checking either Mueller or the surging Nani. All told, it was a deserved equalizer, both for Mueller, who had a spectacular game, and for the Lions, who to that point had controlled possession — and the midfield — most the evening. 

As legs tired, chances dwindled, but Inter Miami nearly stole a winner on a set piece in the 90th minute, with Jay Chapman’s headed effort off a delicious Lee Nguyen delivery just high of a hopelessly beaten Gallese. The Herons looked the better side for most of the final 20 minutes, with Rodolfo Pizarro consistently floating menacingly between the lines, but the breakthrough wouldn’t come for the Herons.

To the victor goes the spoils

Instead, it was Orlando City, very much against the run of play in the second half, that found a winner. Nani, in his final moments in the game, made a probing late run and found his way to a ricochet, which he calmly placed past Robles to give the Lions full spoils.

For Orlando, it was a rare rivalry win in a match against a professional Florida side — having lost Open Cup duels recently to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the now defunct NASL and The Miami FC of the NASL and NPSL. Orlando will look to build on the momentum when they take on New York City FC July 14.

“We didn’t have our fans today,” Nani said after the win. “But we managed the victory for all of them. We made our own noise.” 

Man of the match Chris Mueller agreed with the legend. 

“I think that we look collectively at the goal that we had going into the tournament. I think that going into that first game and winning that and getting those points are crucial,” Mueller said. “Like Nani said, getting to score a goal feels great, but most importantly, the team got the win and I think all in all we’re really proud of the guys. We put in so much work.”

For Inter Miami, it was another agonizingly close call. 

The Herons have played well enough in all three of the club’s initial matches to earn a result, only to come up a goal short in each. They’ll try again to collect the club’s first result against the Chicago Fire next week. Still, it will be tough to shake another close defeat.

“The guys in the locker room are gutted right now,” Luis Robles said following the game.


Embed from Getty Images