ORLANDO, Fla. — Major League Soccer wanted to have a memorable night in the first game for its two new teams.
Thanks to a late goal by one of the league’s biggest offseason additions, it got it.
Orlando City’s Kaka scored in extra time to give the Lions a 1-1 tie with New York City FC in front of an announced crowd of 62,510 at Citrus Bowl Stadium. It was the second-highest attendance for an MLS inaugural game, second only to the L.A. Galaxy’s 69,255 in the Rose Bowl in 1996.
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”The result wasn’t what we wanted, but everything that happened today was really incredible,” Kaka said. ”We have a lot to improve on and we’re going to improve, but it was a really special day for everyone on this team. ”
Kaka, the former AC Milan star who signed as Orlando’s first designated player and is making a league-high $7.2 million this year, injected energy into the league and the Lions’ preseason Twitter (hash)FillTheBowl campaign and Sunday’s opener for the city’s second major professional sports franchise.
It led to a turnout and atmosphere that MLS Commissioner Don Garber called ”unbelievable” after the league avoided its first-ever work stoppage with the signing of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement last week. It will add two more teams in Atlanta and Los Angeles in 2017, and Garber said a new round of expansion should be announced within 45 days.
”We knew that there was a lot of excitement building in this city,” Garber said. ”This city has been painted purple for a week. It’s a great way to kick off our 20th season. …It really gives you a bounce in your step after so many years to see 62,000 people here.”
That excitement seemed to dimming for Orlando’s fans late in the game.
New York appeared to be on its way to the victory in the 76th minute when Mix Diskerud took a pass from David Villa just outside 18-yard box, pushed it with one touch inside the box and rifled a curling shot that sneaked inside the far post.
But in the 91st minute, Orlando (playing 10 on 11 after defender Aurelien Collin was sent off for a red card) was awarded a free kick after Kevin Molino was fouled 10 yards outside the box. On the ensuing play, Kaka got it past Josh Saunders on a deflection off New York’s wall.
”I was very pleased with the way we played the first half, but in the second half, playing a man down was difficult, but I didn’t want the day to end on a sour note so the goal was deserved for us,” Orlando coach Adrian Heath said.
Orlando City defense was able to keep the Spanish star Villa – New York’s captain and first designated player – contained for most of the game by staying in tight formations defensively when the ball was played in his vicinity.
But that changed in the second half, as New York began to press the action on Orlando’s side of the field.
New York had just three shots on goal in the first half, but five in the second. Orlando’s attack was steady throughout, finishing the game with 15 shots on goal – seven in the first half and eight in the second.
”I think both teams showed they are not a finished product,” New York coach Jason Kreis said. The players are not as sharp as you would like, but it’s a season opener and every team is going to go through that. At the end of the day, a point on the road is acceptable.”
Saunders finished with three saves, staying in the game despite a pair of plays that left him bruised and bloodied.
The first incident came in the 14th minute, when he hit his head falling backward on the goalpost while defending a ball played in from the sideline by Orlando’s Lewis Neal.
Then, in the 62nd minute blood streamed from Saunders head after he was kicked above the ear by Orlando’s Carlos Rivas, who was trying to play a ball played to the top of the box.
Prior to the goal Orlando’s best chance of the day came in the 38th minute of the first half with Kaka got a clean shot from about 20 yards out off a cross into the box. But the ball was played right into the body of Saunders, who made the block.
”We played a very good game, but obviously, it’s a shame we didn’t get three points,” Villa said.