Orlando City already may have gotten its money’s worth from Kaká, the Brazilian legend anchoring the MLS expansion team at a league-record $7.2 million per year. The 62,510 purple-clad fans who filled the Orlando Citrus Bowl on Sunday were in no mood to leave with a loss, and the designated player delivered. He created a lucky but deserved stoppage-time equalizer that forged a 1-1 draw in an expansion-team showdown with New York City FC.
Here are three thoughts from a match that marked the first time a pair of major U.S. expansion franchises faced each other in their inaugural game since a 1972 NHL showdown between the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames.
Late goals alter momentum
Orlando had been the better team for almost the entire game, but it was NYCFC’s Mix Diskerud who tallied the opener in the 76th minute. Then, just when it seemed the visitors would escape with all three points, Kaká sent the stadium into a frenzy.
NYCFC hadn’t given Orlando goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts much to do throughout the afternoon. But a smart, 62nd-minute substitution from New York coach Jason Kreis changed the complexion of the game. Khiry Shelton, the second pick in January’s MLS draft, offered speed on the flank that veteran Mehdi Ballouchy could not, and Orlando’s defense began to stretch. Shelton’s 68th-minute cross nearly found striker Adam Nemec at the back post, and the Slovakian skied an open look a few seconds later.
Then Diskerud struck. Much should be expected of a player wearing his first name and the No. 10 on the back of his jersey (‘Mix’ is actually short for Mikkel) and Diskerud finally met those expectations toward the end of an indifferent afternoon. Orlando was a bit late to close Diskerud down after he took a feed from David Villa, and the U.S. international curled a perfect shot through the defense and inside the right post.
But Kaká and 10-man Orlando wouldn’t be denied. There was plenty of luck involved, but it was deserved luck based on the balance of play. The Brazilian’s 91st-minute free kick took a left turn after striking NYCFC defender Jeb Brovsky and left goalkeeper Josh Saunders no chance.
Stars in the spotlight
Two key reasons these clubs aren’t regarded as typical expansion teams are because Kaká, 32, and Villa, 33, on Sunday became the eight and ninth World Cup winners to play in MLS. All eyes were on them as they made their MLS debuts.
Kaká was more influential, in large part because Orlando controlled the midfield. NYCFC had difficulty holding the ball and when it turned it over, the Lions frequently found Kaká roaming the seams and channels. He combined well with several teammates—at times it looked like Orlando had been playing together for years—and tested Saunders on several occasions. Kaká’s 38th-minute shot, which followed some brilliant interplay with Kevin Molino and Lewis Neal, posed a stiff challenge. The goalkeeper spent several minutes on the turf following a brutal 14th-minute collision with his goalpost but managed to parry away the Brazilian’s blast from distance.
Villa failed to have the same level of influence. Playing further up the field, the Spaniard was limited by a dearth of service. NYCFC’s lack of speed and Orlando’s ability to clog the center with midfielders Amobi Okugo and Cristian Higuita didn’t give Villa many options. And Nemec wasn’t much of a partner in terms of his ability to win the ball and lay it off. But Villa did make it onto the score sheet thanks to his assist to Diskerud.
Eventful afternoon for the Lions
For 90 minutes, Orlando did just about everything but score. Regardless of their eventual record, the Lions look like a team that’s going to be fun, and perhaps stressful, to watch. They were quick, proactive and flamboyant. Kaká is creative and mobile and Orlando City’s ability to counterattack quickly should put opponents on edge. Forward Carlos Rivas, a Colombian DP, is lighting quick but proved incapable of staying onside on Sunday.
Brek Shea, who’s returned to MLS from the Stoke City wilderness, was his typical inventive and unpredictable self. The converted left back's first-half spin move on New York City's Josh Williams will have a place in the club’s gif hall of fame.
There were close calls—for instance, Okugo’s 49th-minute header was cleared off the line—and controversy. Orlando City players were yellow carded an incredible three times for diving by referee Alan Kelly. Only one MLS team (New England) was cautioned more frequently for simulation all of last year, according to ESPN. In the 83rd, Orlando central defender Aurélien Collin, a veteran of Sporting Kansas City’s 2013 MLS championship team, earned a straight red card for a reckless, two-footed challenge on Villa.
Still, Orlando survived. Even though their team didn’t win, the 62,000-plus got their money’s worth on Sunday.