I should just show myself out for that headline, but I sat through a Stoke pre-season match in muggy swampass heat and you didn’t, so you’ll have to indulge the bad pun. The thing is, Orlando rarely gets to see any Premier League clubs, or any European clubs, for that matter. I think Bolton came here last summer, and you know I wasn’t going to go see that. But when my kid’s local soccer club offered discounted end zone tickets and a chance to get on the pitch, I figured what the hey. A rundown and amateur pix after the jump.
A quick primer for those unfamiliar with soccer in Orlando: we got a USL-Pro club in 2011 when Stoke City board member Phil Rawlins moved the Austin Astex here. The Orlando City Lions quickly won the USL-Pro championship in their inaugural season and have enjoyed above-average attendance at their home games in the cavernous, ancient heap of concrete surrounded by urban blight known as the Florida Citrus Bowl. The squad is managed by Adrian Heath, a former Stoke player and Everton legend from the 80s.
The crowd for Saturday night’s friendly against Stoke was probably the best I’ve seen for soccer at the Citrus Bowl in years. If the attendance was announced over the loudspeakers, I didn’t hear it because the speakers suck and I was sitting one section over from Orlando’s rowdy “tifosi” group. The atmosphere for the game was actually really great.
Before the game, I got to hang out on a corner of the stadium’s astroturf and watch the players warm up. The kids from our club got to meet the players and a few were chosen to be ballboys for the second half. I give Orlando City an A++ for what they do to spark kids’ interest in soccer. They also let everyone out onto the field after the game to run around, and the OC players usually come out to sign autographs and take pictures.
On to the actual match: Stoke looked pretty rusty in the first half and nearly gave up a goal a couple times early on, but they managed to get their act together enough to score the game’s only goal a minute into first half stoppage time. Jon Walters volleyed a shot into the net following a header by Peter Crouch. That would be Crouchie’s only significant contribution to the game.
The second half turned out to be pretty chippy, culminating in a red card for Glenn Whelan. Orlando managed to get a few more chances to tie thanks to the man advantage, but Stoke’s defense, anchored by Huth and Shawcross, used all their old dirty tricks to keep the Orlando forwards rattled.
One thing that surprised me a bit is the size of most of the Stoke players. You just don’t get that watching them on the Deuce at 7 a.m. I mean, I know Crouch is tall, but every one of Stoke’s back four is upwards of 6’2″ I think. I was standing a few feet from backup GK Thomas Sorensen before the game. He’s probably 6’6″. A beast.
All in all, it was a fun night, even if the match lacked some flair and razzle-dazzle. The Orlando players acquitted themselves well and were primarily responsible for keeping the 2nd half interesting. Kenwyne Jones made an appearance late and created a couple chances for Stoke, but the Potters weren’t really out to improve on their first half performance.