90 Minutes in Heaven: My First MLS Soccer Game

By Marcus Mitchell

It wasn’t my first Orlando City game this season, but it was the most important soccer game I’ve ever attended. The Orlando City Soccer Club was set to take on the New York City Football Club for the third time this year. Both teams joined the MLS this year as expansion teams and clashed for the third time this year, but the game itself had a special meaning to me.

I’m a Florida boy, born and raised in sunshine. When I was six I fell in love. My parents signed me up for youth soccer and I never looked back. I played for 10 years and am still a fan to this day, but back in my youth I only wanted one thing in life: to attend an MLS soccer game. Back then I didn’t know about teams like Barcelona or Arsenal, I only knew the MLS. My favorite team at the time was the Tampa Bay Mutiny, a team founded in 1995, the same year I was born. My dream was to go to one of their games, to see what professional soccer looked like. Then in 2001, my dreams hit the brakes: the MLS had shut down both the Mutiny and their Florida counterparts, the Miami Fusion. It didn’t change my life, but it made the sunshine state a little dimmer in my eyes.

1’ The game kicks off in Orlando, their final game at home this season. The biggest farewell party of the year had started in Orlando and my caravan of three soccer fans and I was stuck in Orlando traffic. We made the trek from Tampa to Orlando after our Friday classes concluded and we were bent on making it to the last game of the season. We agreed to split any speeding ticket and our driver took off. I didn’t care about missing the kickoff, so long as I heard the final whistle in Orlando this year.

This season is the first time the MLS has come to Florida in 14 years. Fourteen long years living in a state without soccer. In that time, the MLS had expanded from the ugly stepchild of soccer into a reputable destination for players. David Beckham retired in this league and Landon Donovan was made here. The MLS had evolved into a league with a bright future, but Florida was still left in the dark.

45’ After parking, I finally make my way up the Citrus Bowl stairs to find some seats. I swim through a sea of purple-clad OCSC supporters and get settled in my seat. Within seconds, there’s screaming everywhere, I look to the field and the ball is in the net. Kwame Siriboe had just scored for NYCFC after Orlando failed to clear a loose ball from a corner. The crowd is outraged and the halftime whistle blows. There is panic in everyone’s voice as we are down 1-0 at halftime.

Since joining the MLS this year, Orlando City stayed an average team. Eleven wins, eight draws, and 13 losses have been the numbers pinned to their first season. Now with the season winding down, OCSC is in the hunt for the MLS playoffs, but needs a win against NYCFC. A loss would mean elimination.

62’ It’s been over 15 minutes into the second half and we still haven’t leveled the score. My legs get restless as our crosses to the box get cleared away. Then suddenly it happened. Like a purple flash, Corey Ashe breaks away into open space on the right side of the pitch. The whole crowd stands up and points toward Ashe. As if seeing our hands and hearing our screams, the midfielder sends the ball to Adrian Winter and Cyle Larin, our striker and MLS Rookie of the Year, takes off to the middle of the box. I feel myself losing my voice as Winter prepares his cross. And then there is nothing but silence. It feels like an eternity with the ball in the air and I hear a whispered “come on” from the girl sitting behind me. The ball connects with Larin’s head and sails into the corner of the net. The crowd erupts in screams and I’m assaulted with high fives and hugs.

Larin had been a blessing to our team. In the offseason, we signed Brazilian legend Kaka’ and added a few other veteran players, but we were still a team straight out of the USL. We were young and inexperienced, but that was the best part. It was Larin’s first year in the MLS and it was our first year too. Sure, Kaka’ and the other players have been great, but Larin is who represents that scrappy, rebellious side of our team.

70’ Thirsty for a win and not satisfied with a draw, OCSC has been pushing forward for a go-ahead goal. Two minutes later, an NYCFC player goes down injured in the box, but the play goes on and Orlando gets possession in their own half. And there stands a purple shirt alone, with nothing but grass around him. Our winger, Carlos Rivas, is past the entire team and waving madly. “He’s offside” I say under my breath and roll my eyes, then I see the still downed NYCFC player in the box and realize Rivas is truly open. After receiving the ball, he finds a sprinting Larin, who in turn gets the ball to Adrian Winter, open on goal. Winter’s shot is deflected and it’s a mad scramble. Winters gets to it and whips it to a wide open Larin who buries the ball into the net. I look up to the scoreboard just to make sure it’s real and then I see the score: 2-1.

I went to two other MLS games this year, both ending in a loss. I felt like a curse to the team, still waiting to experience an MLS win. I was determined to experience an MLS win on Florida soil and this my last chance this year.

84’ Our goalkeeper, Tally Hall, lies on the ground, injured. Our backup, Josh Ford, is forced to come on in his place and our momentum shifts to focus on surviving this contest. Shot after shot is fired at Ford but our defense manages to get it out. I can feel the hair stand up on my neck as the ball sails toward our goal and each time we manage to survive. Four minutes are added and the crowd is on edge. I start shaking as the referee continues looking at his watch. “CALL IT!” shouts the girl behind me and I look around the stadium. Everyone has their hands to their faces, scared to cheer just yet, scared to even breath. Then we hear the whistle and everything feels numb. My ears ring and my skin tingles. We won.

It finally felt real. Florida soccer had finally returned and, for a moment, everything felt surreal. Purple confetti rained down and drums beat in the distance. Everyone was screaming and dancing and I just stood there with a dumb smile. This was what soccer was all about. 35,000 strangers coming together to watch the one thing we all understood. I ran my hands through my hair and looked up at the purple-sparkled sky. Soccer was back in Florida.

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