Midway through the first half of the first game in New York City FC history, David Villa, who had not received a pass he called for, clasped his hands to his face and tilted his head skyward. It was an obvious expression of frustration from a player used to a much higher level of soccer.
The service he had grown accustomed to seeing from teammates in Spain was nonexistent, and the technical level of the game was several notches below his standards. His teammates fought hard, for sure, and things improved a little in the second half as Villa and Mix Diskerud, the other player of note on this embryonic team, combined for a fine inaugural goal to open their scoring ledger. But this is very much a work in progress.
There was one other high-profile player on the field, too, Brazilian playmaker Kaká of Orlando City SC, who made his mark with his team down to 10 men and only a few minutes of stoppage time remaining.
Trailing by a goal in the first minute of injury time, Kaká drove a 20-yard free kick off the chest of NYCFC defender Jeb Brovsky and into the back of the net to salvage a 1-1 draw in the Major League Soccer debut of both teams as a majority of the 62,510 mostly ecstatic fans who were listed in attendance roared their approval.
With that, MLS ushered in a new era with its latest expansion teams, as sloppy, bloody and disjointed as it was. Nerves, lost possession, ugly tackles and cards red and yellow characterized the day, along with the pulsating contribution of the purple-clad fans.
“Both teams showed that they are not finished products,” NYCFC coach Jason Kreis said. “It wasn’t one of the most beautiful soccer games in the world. But I’m thinking both teams are going to improve a lot as the season goes along.”
NYCFC, the offspring of Manchester City in England’s Premier League and of baseball’s New York Yankees, hopes to add Frank Lampard in July after his season with Manchester City ends. He would help considerably. Until then, the team will rely on its work rate and a high ceiling for development to remain competitive.
“On the soccer side, we showed we need improvement,” Kreis said.
Villa, as frustrated as he seemed to be at times with the errant passes, did not complain publicly.
“In the second half we played well,” he said. “It’s a shame we didn’t get the win.”
Orlando felt much the same way.
“For sure, the result was not what we wanted, but everything tonight was incredible,” Kaká said through an interpreter, then added, “We have a lot to improve.”
In the league’s 20th season, the two teams made their debuts with much fanfare. The region around Orlando, starved for another major sports franchise to join the Magic of the NBA, is all-in with its new team. Fans bought all the tickets for seating days before the game, so an additional 2,000 standing-room-only tickets were put on sale Wednesday, and they were said to have sold out in 24 hours.
It was the largest audience for a soccer game at the Citrus Bowl, including games at the 1994 World Cup, and the second-largest attendance for an inaugural game in MLS.
Hours before the game, scalpers were asking $150 for tickets with face values of $60, and some fans arrived five hours before the 5:15 p.m. kickoff time, tailgating and playing games in the parking lots.
Most were dressed in the new purple jerseys of Orlando, but not Carlos Villacreses, 25, an IT worker, who went to four stores that were sold out of the shirts at affordable prices, he said, leaving him in a white T-shirt. But he planned to buy a purple shirt soon.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to have a team of our own here,” he said. “I expect to come to every game.”
Kevin Ma, a consultant from Toronto, said he spent so much time working in Orlando that he had bought season tickets for $400, and he said he was already a season-ticket holder for Toronto’s MLS team.
“Even though Toronto is my first team, I’m really enjoying this,” he said. “The fans are so into it.”
When the game kicked off, it was the Orlando fans who had the best time, watching their team control the run of play and apply pressure behind Kaká, Kevin Molino and midfielder Cristian Higuita, son of former Colombia goalkeeper René Higuita. The NYCFC defense was on its heels for much of the first half, disorganized and rattled at times, and goalkeeper Josh Saunders suffered the most.
In the 15th minute, he suffered a contusion on his head when he became entangled with Orlando defender Seb Hines and collided with the goal post. He remained in the game after receiving medical attention, with blood seeping down the side of his head. According to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who spoke to reporters at halftime, Saunders went through the league’s concussion protocol, and Garber said he was satisfied that Saunders did not suffered a concussion.
“I am happy with the protocol,” Garber said. “We take concussions seriously.”
Garber was much happier to discuss the general events of the day, with the festive atmosphere before and during the game, and its implications of future profits.
“The city has been painted purple for a week,” he said. “It’s a great way for us to kick off our 20th season. We have two new teams, three new television partners and a lot of great new players in the league. But boy, it gives you a bounce in your step after so many years to see 62,000 people here.”