Did you notice our absence during the weekend match against San Francisco? One of the big reasons we decided against providing content for that match was due to the fact that we would not really be in attendance. Matthew Bunch was in Tallahassee for the “Rally In Tally” where the Hurricanes football team took down Florida State (finally). I was in Orlando for the final home match of World Cup Qualifying for the U.S. Men’s National Team. So in something that’s a bit off the rails from what we normally do, let’s provide you a recap of that match just in case you forgot the feelings of Friday night.
Getting to Orlando was a mess. We definitely left later than intended but we finally packed up the car and headed north on the turnpike a little before 2pm. After a few rest stops and a massive accident, I got to see a side of Florida that is rarely ever seen. Taking a back road for a good 60 miles outside Orlando until we reached Lake Nona, there was a sense of tranquility and peacefulness on that two lane highway through the middle of nowhere. Thankfully we skirted around the Orlando rush hour traffic and arrived at the stadium at about 6:45pm (45 minutes before kickoff).
I purchased six tickets for our group the day tickets went on sale to the public. Getting inside the new stadium proved to be incredibly difficult. Multiple ticket scanners were broken and security seemed to not care about expediting the process. Finally, after waiting over thirty minutes in line we entered the stadium during the second minute of play. We were able to lockdown half of row K in section 30 just inside the north technical area. To say we were surrounded by fans of the Panamanian national team would be an understatement.
We were outnumbered. To the left and in front of us there were numerous groups of supporters for the visitors. The last two rows of the section had a small USA contingent of support. The fun began a few minutes later as Jozy Altidore cleverly knocked an incoming ball forward to Pulisic who was off to the races. The baby-faced wonder-kid scurried around a sliding Roman Torres and took a Messi like touch around the goalkeeper and put in the first goal on a difficult angle.
The crowd was deafening after that finish. “The Wall” erupted and every single U.S. supporter was on their feet and chanting away to Seven Nation Army. Panamanian fans could only stand there in shock looking for a way back in the game. Unfortunately for them, the USMNT kept the pressure coming. All the work and possession would pay off as the roles would reverse and Pulisic set up Jozy Altidore for the second goal of the night. Pulisic found himself on the top left corner of the technical area, making a nifty move around his marker he sent in a threatening cross that landed perfectly for Altidore and his tap in made the stadium erupt even louder than the first.
Paul Arriola found himself in a very similar position to Pulisic just after Jozy’s goal. The Panama goal keeper came up with a great save to deny the US going up three early on. The next couple of chances came for Panama as they forced Tim Howard to make two great saves to keep the US ahead by two. Wood and Altidore would both have amazing chances but Panama’s keeper would be up to the task again.
It all came crashing down for Panama in the 42nd minute as Bobby Wood got taken down in the area from behind. After a lengthy wait to take the penalty thanks to the referee sorting out matters, I yelled out for Altidore to just chip the keeper right down the middle and send the stadium into bedlam. As I type this for you, I promise you that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that he heard me from the opposite side of the stadium. I look at the run up and immediately realize he’s going for the Panenka, right down the middle. The U.S. was up three and the stadium knew the game was sealed at that very moment.
That was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back for the supporting contingent of Panama. The witty back and forth conversations became personal and the insults began to fly. Being in the pressbox while covering Miami FC has shielded me from the rowdiness that could go on in the stands when the rout is on. The last time I took in a game from the stands was in that exact same stadium as Miami F.C. enjoyed a rout of their own. In that match, the exact same witted conversations between Orlando supporters and I became a barrage of insults at myself, the NASL, and Miami.
Back to Friday, Panamanian fans grew incensed at the fact that my group spoke spanish rooting for the U.S. Many of them clearly under the influence of a few drinks, tried to trigger my group in hopes for coming away with something “positive” for the night. As the game went on, they continued and with each passing U.S. chance on net the insults flew even louder. We were in our own little Estadio Fernandez in the heart of Santa Clara.
Bobby Wood just missed the net in the 62nd minute with his curler going just wide. In the 63rd minute, he would find the sweet spot and bury his chance at net on a turn around shot that beat the Panamanian goal keeper. The 25,303 in attendance lost their collective minds and had every right in doing so. The U.S. was just now minutes away from essentially earning their place in Russia despite what was viewed as a poor qualifying campaign.
Cuatro a cero was all she wrote for that evening in Orlando and made the trek from Miami seem even more worthwhile. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to attend seven USMNT matches over the past six years. It all started with a game at now Hard Rock Stadium on a rainy Saturday with maybe 10,000 people in attendance. During this campaign, I have found myself in the stands for a 6-1 performance in the second round of qualifying over St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a 4-0 beatdown of Trinidad & Tobago in Jacksonville last September, and now this 4-0 win in Orlando. Over 43,000 showed up in St. Louis and over 19,000 in Jacksonville on a Tuesday. This 25,303 felt like 50,000 and I have no doubt that the USMNT will be returning to Florida very soon.