ORLANDO, Fla. — It only took a few seconds for Orlando City supporters to make their decision.
After 120 minutes of play, the Lions remained deadlocked 1-1 with New York City FC. Now, the two goalkeepers were making their way to the goal on the opposite side of the pitch, away from the supporters, to take penalty kicks that would determine the results of the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.
The stadium is normally full for Major League Soccer games, but it’s tough to pack the venue for Open Cup matches not part of season ticket packages on a Wednesday night with the threat of rain. NYCFC’s goalkeeper had a chance to focus on stopping kicks without any rowdy Orlando City fans behind him.
It seemed the section made the decision all at once — it was time to move. Ten minutes of mad scrambling followed as the supporters section relocated to the opposite end of the pitch to fill in behind the goal.
The moment — since nicknamed “The Running of the Wall” — has gone viral. But more important, it has become a rallying cry for an Orlando City club that feels that it’s finding its footing.
“After all these years of ups and downs, it’s probably the greatest moment of our club history to date,” supporter David Valentin said. “It’s taken us back to where we belong, to our roots. It shows that we’ll always be faithful. We’ll always be City. We’ll always be purple. That’s never going to change.”
— Jason Beede (@therealBeede) July 11, 2019
There was a moment, seeing the yellow-jacketed security guards lined up to block entrance to the opposite section, that the supporters questioned their choice. From his place in the supporters section, Tristan Stafford watched the guards warily. Then, he heard another fan let out a yell of, “Viva la revolucion!” He yelled it back, and continued the sprint toward the goal.
The Exploria Stadium guards were confused. Although there aren’t assigned seats for Open Cup matches, the front office had suggested that security keep the section behind the opposing goal empty to streamline fan movement. Now, a flood of fans was barreling headfirst directly toward the seats they had been told to keep clear.
The yellow line of security held strong, but fans began to dart around them, leaping over barriers and seats. A slow rumble of boos filled the stadium as the growing crowd was blocked while pressing toward the section.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
That was all coach James O’Connor could think as he watched security attempt to restrain the burgeoning crowd of fans. He knew his team needed an extra spark as it entered penalty kicks; a complete mob of fans would provide that boost, but it was being held back on the concourse.
What O’Connor couldn’t see from the sidelines was another man racing through the stadium — Orlando City CEO Alex Leitão.
Leitão normally watches games from a suite with the rest of the front office staff. But Wednesday’s match was different and he inched closer to the field as the drama of the game ratcheted up — first to a lower-level club, then to the concourse in the final minutes of extra time.
When the first supporters began to make a run for the opposite goal, Leitão took off himself. He arrived at the south side of the stadium as the crowd began to yell protests at the back pedaling security officers and yelled his own directions — “Let them in.”
“I’ve been involved with soccer for more than 20 years… but that was one of the best nights of my career,” Leitão said. “Those are the moments that really define a club. I really forgot about this whole CEO thing and just ran as a fan.”
Almost immediately, the yellow line of security broke and the purple sea of fans descended. They packed closer together than normal, ignoring seat markers, pressing shoulder to shoulder as midfielder Tesho Akindele lined up for the first penalty kick.
Somehow, changing locations also changed the tone of the Wall. Stafford compared it to a high school student section, close knit and rowdy. Supporter Noelle Donovan went even further — she called it a family.
To the players on the pitch, it was hard to believe it was happening. Forward Chris Mueller watched it all with his hands on his waist, in disbelief of everything — that the fans were really running, that security might keep them out, that the tables had now flipped to return the home field advantage right back to the Lions.
“It just shows the love and the support we have here in Orlando,” Mueller said. “To see the joy that it brought to the guys and to the fans was amazing. We’re gonna enjoy this one for sure. You gotta enjoy these moments.”
— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) July 11, 2019
Each penalty kick, blocked and scored, was met with an explosion of cheers. Donovan lost track of who was shooting, who was scoring — it was too loud to keep track. But when goalkeeper Adam Griwis dove to make his second penalty save of the night, the response from the Wall was an instant cacophony.
Akindele immediately hurdled the concrete barrier and leapt into the supporters section. Sideline security kept the rest of the team on the pitch, but they crowded as close as they could, tossing kits into the stands and raising their hands in appreciation. The players didn’t just celebrate with one another; they celebrated as a club.
“Since the beginning, we’ve prided ourselves on building this club together,” Stafford said. “That’s what you saw [on Wednesday]. We were all celebrating together.”
To longtime fan James Womble, the result was a breath of relief. He drove in from Lutz with two friends to watch the game and after the last-second equalizer, he felt like the game was following an old script — close, but not good enough for a win.
The run, and the victory that followed, completely changed that narrative.
“It seemed like a movie,” Womble said. “We’ve had a lot of moments where we were so close and a bounce doesn’t go our way and then it’s better luck next time. This was different. It just seemed like a moment that we’ve all been waiting for.”
Even with the passage of time, the magic didn’t wear off. Just after the match ended, Leitão described the night as the most important moment in club’s years in the MLS. The following day, he stood by his statement — it didn’t get better than Wednesday night.
In my humble opinion, tonight was the most important moment of the history of the MLS era of the club. Thanks fans! That run at concourse tho… I will never forget @OrlandoCitySC
— Alex Leitao (@alexleitao) July 11, 2019
To Leitão, the moment created on Wednesday night is a new peak, a new high that hasn’t been met or matched before in the club’s history. The sentiment is shared throughout the club — by the fans and the players, by O’Connor and owner Flávio Augusto da Silva.
“There are moments in the history of a club that really helps to create the bond with the fans,” Leitão said. “This was one of those moments. It was the best of those kind of moments for us.”