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'Scenes, absolute scenes' - The beautiful farce of the wildest MLS playoff shootout in history
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22-Nov-2020, 04:35 pm

'Scenes, absolute scenes' - The beautiful farce of the wildest MLS playoff shootout in history

Shclegel Orlando City

If the MLS playoffs have taught us anything over the years, it's to expect the unexpected. Stunning last-minute goals, improbable comebacks, inexplicable decisions, double doinks! This is the time of year where the normal becomes the impossible and the chaotic becomes the predictable.

It was a game that featured a penalty kick red card, sending a celebrating team into chaos. It featured a seemingly endless rule discussion and an unlikely hero, Rodrigo Schlegel, who inflated his resume a bit to put him in a position to save a season. Most importantly, it was a game that featured moments that will prove unforgettable, a sequence of events that are unlikely to be replicated or duplicated any time soon.

"I think we need more time to calm down and reflect on what happened tonight," said Orlando City head coach Oscar Pareja. "The analysis of the game, it may wait for tomorrow when we can analyze the soccer side.

"What just happened at the end, I never saw it before and this is the beauty of this game: that we’re humans and full of emotions and mistakes and good things."

The game itself was nothing abnormal, even if it started off with a relative bang. Former Manchester United star Nani opened the scoring just five minutes in, converting a penalty with a run-up slow enough to make Paul Pogba blush. And then, just three minutes later, that moment was erased, a Maxim Chanot header drawing NYCFC level.

It was a game destined for extra time, even after Orlando City defender Ruan seemingly doomed his team by earning a red card just moments before 90 minutes were up. The Brazilian kicked out at Gary Mackay-Steven, earning his marching orders and a trip to the locker room. But more on him later.

By the time 120 minutes were up, the two sides were deadlocked. Penalties it was.

Maxi Moralez, NYCFC's unquestioned star and leader, stepped up first and missed. Luck, seemingly, was on Orlando's side. Heading to the fifth and final round, Orlando City had yet to miss, meaning Valentin Castellanos needed to beat Orlando City goalkeeper Pedro Gallese to keep the match going.

He didn't. Gallese dove and stopped Castellanos' shot, sending Orlando City into ecstasy. The players stormed the field. Fans in attendance went bonkers. Pareja, in his excitement, bolted straight to the locker room. He didn't want Ruan to celebrate alone.

“When Pedro stopped the PK, before Pedro stopped the PK I was thinking about Ruan," he said. "I knew Ruan was by himself in the locker room, I know what it means for him not being there. I don’t think he was even looking at the game, so when Pedro stopped that, I didn’t think about anything else but him and I came to tell him that we won."

The problem? Orlando didn't win. Gallese was deemed to have been off his line, and the penalty was to be retaken. Making matters worse, Gallese had earned a yellow card for time-wasting in extra time and was shown a second yellow card for his seemingly a game-winning save. Under the 2020-21 rules, Gallese would receive a warning for coming off his line early but, with MLS playing under 2019-20 rules due to the league's schedule, Gallese was gone with a second yellow card.

Someone was sent to get Pareja, who quickly made his way back from what turned out to be a premature celebration. The game was set to continue, and he needed a new goalkeeper.

Orlando City immediately turned to back up Brian Rowe, who tossed on the gloves and ran onto the field. They had one sub remaining, and the hope was that they could use it to bring on their backup goalkeeper, who would simply need to make one save.

Wrong. Substitutions are not allowed in a shootout and, after a hefty delay, that was conveyed to everyone on the field, including the referees themselves. Rowe, who was standing ready in goal, was pulled back out and told to take his gloves off. An outfield player would need to hop in net.

Up stepped Schlegel, the 23-year-old Argentine on loan from Racing. He campaigned for the job. So too did 20-year-old Andres Perea.

At that moment, that must have been quite a pitch. Pareja had little time to make a decision and, no matter which way he turned, that decision wouldn't be easy. There's no contingency plan for having your starting goalkeeper sent off in a shootout because, to be quite honest, that doesn't happen. Schlegel, in this case, became that hastily-assembled contingency plan after Gallese himself vouched for him.

"Pedro said ‘Give it to Rodri',' Pareja said. "Rodri told him ‘I was a goalkeeper when I was in the academy,’ so we just gave him the gloves and prayed."

The problem? Schlegel's goalkeeping history wasn't exactly extensive. That academy experience he used to sell Pareja? It wasn't much.

"The truth is that I don’t have any history of being a goalkeeper," Schlegel revealed after the game. "Back in Argentina during my youth games, when I was 15 or 16 years old, we didn’t have goalkeepers available because they were injured.

"At that moment the coach asked who would like to step up and I said that I would so I played as a goalkeeper for three matches. Now and then when I play with my friends and uncles, I’m the goalkeeper."

He added: "Professionally, no, I’ve never played an official match as a goalkeeper.”

So in stepped Schlegel, looking to rely on the experiences of stopping shots from his friends and uncles. But this was a playoff game, perhaps the biggest moment in the club's history.

On Castellanos' retake, Schlegel was unable to make the save. No matter, though. If Nani converted, Orlando City were through.

He didn't. The former Portugal star saw his shot saved, a spectacular diving stop from Sean Johnson. The game was back on, and Orlando had a defender between the sticks.

After both teams exchanged goals, NYCFC's Gudmundur Thorarinsson stepped up. Conventional wisdom would say to simply put it out of reach, as Schlegel would be unlikely to make a proper diving stop.

But Thorarinsson fired to his right about chest high, and Schlegel read it the whole way. He got both hands to it and pushed it straight back out. Ecstasy.

Orlando stormed the field, the players going wild chasing an animated Schlegel. The crowd, for the second time in a matter of minutes, went insane. The team's official Twitter account tweeted that they won. The problem was that they hadn't; they still had to score.

Benji Michel stepped up and did just that, finally ending the madness. The shootout began at 3 pm local time. It ended 22 minutes later, with Schlegel the hero and Orlando City into the next round of the playoffs.

"That’s football. One minute you think that you’ve won, the next you don’t. You can say this should have happened or this didn’t, but really what matters is the end result," Schlegel said.

"You’ve got something where it happens one minute and you’re happy and then you find out that maybe you didn’t win, then you did again and you’ve got to go through the same thing. It’s very difficult with these emotions, but that’s just the beauty of sport."

Beauty is one way to describe it, and there are plenty of other words you can use. Some will revel in the chaos and some will be turned off by it, saying that the confusion of a 22-minute penalty shootout cheapens a post-season match.

Former MLS midfielder Stu Holden called it "a farce". LA Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan said it was all "embarrassing". Nani himself said that "it doesn’t look good for the league and for the spectacle of the football".

But, realistically, Orlando won't care. They're still alive, having booked a date with the winner of the Philadelphia Union's clash with the New England Revolution. Their first-ever playoff win has been secured thanks to a match and a moment that those that witnessed it will never, ever forget.

"They were very emotive with the win when we returned to the locker room," Pareja said. "They were celebrating with each other and when this happens, us coaches can’t say anything because there’s nothing to be said. They deserved this and they did an amazing job.

"They should celebrate it like this and we saw how happy they were. Now we have time to analyze, fix some things, remain calm and focus on the details. Today was a very special soccer game, with a lot of unexpected emotions."

He added: "With all the circumstances of what happened, it magnified what they did tonight. It has been a long journey this year with what happened with the pandemic with people being in their houses and not being able to come to the stadium.

"People suffered in many other ways, losing their loved ones and we have such emotions in our body, in our minds, that we want to get out and today the game gave us that opportunity.

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