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Gritty 10-man Orlando City makes statement with D.C. United draw

Orlando City's Justin Meram, center, collides with D.C. United goalkeeper David Ousted, left, during an MLS soccer match Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. The game ended in a 1-1 draw. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

This wasn’t just beginning of new season for Orlando City.

It was the dawn of new era.

Not that a 1-1 draw to one of the worst teams in the league last year — D.C. United — was cause for a citywide celebration Saturday might, but maybe just maybe coach Jason Kreis is onto something when he says this reconstructed roster is filled with dogged, determined, gritty, gutty fighters who will do anything and everything in their power to win.

Playing a man down for most of the game and then salvaging a result on a stoppage-time goal by Stéfano Pinho undoubtedly gave Orlando City’s coach and fans something to feel good about. It’s certainly an indication of a team’s heart and hustle when it still manages to out-shoot and out-possess an opponent despite playing with 10 men for 60 minutes.

“I was really pleased with the true grit showed by our squad,” Kreis said. “… All of our players left everything out there. They emptied their tanks. I couldn’t be prouder.”

The raucous supporter groups came in as they always do for the season-opener, marching into the stadium, waving their banners, singing their songs and chanting their this traditional rallying cry, “Vamos … Vamos Orlando!”

Let’s go … Let’s go Orlando!

Except they might need to change the mantra this season because you can just sense the fans expect more. Orlando City’s famously frenzied fans want their team to match their intensity. This is the year the Orlando City Lions must make as much noise on the pitch and in the standings as their fans make on The Wall.

Vamos a ganar … Vamos a ganar Orlando!

Let’s win … Let’s win Orlando!

Is it just me or does this feels like the most anticipated season in Orlando City’s short history — even more anticipated than the inaugural expansion season of 2015? Back then, Orlando City was new and novel and going to soccer games was the cool thing to do. Then last year, the new stadium opened up and that added another reason to attend games and another layer to the coolness factor.

This year just seems different. The fan base has become more discerning — and more demanding. The town has devotedly cheered on the team for three seasons, but in Year 4 it’s time for the team to actually give the town something to cheer about.

“The fans have become more sophisticated and nothing less than the playoffs will be good enough this season,” said Wally Whiting, a season-ticket holder wearing a purple top hat as he entered the stadium Saturday night.

Another fan, Art Hardie, peeled off his furry lion’s-head mask so he could talk to a reporter.

“The repetitive disappointing finishes have had an effect,” he said. “We’re ready for a big season.”

The old guard is no more and the new-car smell has worn off.

The two most public founding fathers of the franchise — Phil Rawlins and Adrian Heath — are gone.

Kaká — the captain of the team and the face of the franchise — is gone.

Cyle Larin — the team’s young star and leading scorer for the first three seasons — is gone.

There’s almost an entirely new roster — a roster that has the fingerprints of Kreis all over it. This is a pivotal season for Kreis, whose team fell apart last summer, finished next-to-last in the Eastern Conference and had the worst record since the franchise joined MLS.

Kreis, it seems, went to the front office after last season with a request from the Bill Parcells School of Team Building. Parcells, the former coach of the New England Patriots, famously went to the front office several years ago and told them, “If you want me to cook the dinner, then you at least ought to let me shop for some of the groceries.”

Orlando City did just that. Kreis and GM Niki Budalic took the shopping cart and zoomed down the aisles, filling it with everything Kreis wanted to satisfy his appetite for players. On Saturday night, Orlando City unveiled a new roster that included 14 new players.

As Kreis has said numerous times during the offseason, this is now the type of team he envisioned when accepted the job midway through the 2016 season. In all, 15 players are gone from last year’s team — many of whom lacked the commitment and work ethic Kreis demands. He has publicly said that the players he jettisoned didn’t fit what he wanted on the pitch, in training sessions or in the community.

“This is now our team and these are our guys,” Kreis states adamantly. “… We want guys who want to compete, who want to win and who feel the pain when we don’t win. Every single player we’ve brought [during the offseason] has sat down with me, looked me in the eye and told me they want to win.”

A new roster.

A new season.

A new era.

A new rallying cry.

Vamos a ganar … Vamos a ganar Orlando!

Let’s win … Let’s win Orlando!





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