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Underdog Harrisburg City Islanders saw Orlando City SC right out of USL

An unlikely playoff upset ended what was supposed to be Orlando's victory lap before heading to MLS

PSP IMAGES 2014

Orlando City SC was on top of the world in 2014. They were just coming off a season where they won the USL Pro Championship in front of over 20,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl. They followed that up with the official announcement that they were going to be jumping up to MLS in 2015. So the 2014 season was set to be their USL Pro swan song season as they completed a four-year run of dominance.

Yeah, about that...

People who only know Orlando City SC for their years in MLS may not realize how much of a juggernaut they were in USL Pro. During their four years in the league, Orlando finished at the top of the table three times and picked up championships in 2011 and 2013. They were the dominant force of a fluctuating league that was still struggling to form its own identity.

Everyone knew from the start that 2014 would be Orlando's last year in the league, and the most dominant team in USL Pro history managed to live up to expectations. The team only suffered four losses the entire season on the way to a relatively comfortable finish at the top of the table.

Securing the number one seed for the playoffs was crucial for the team’s plans. After all, Orlando hadn't lost at home all season.

For their first playoff match, Orlando would get to host the eight seed. That year’s eight seed was a team that had struggled going into the playoffs, dropping three of their last five games ahead of an eighth place finish.

The Harrisburg City Islanders had more than their share of success during the USL Pro years. They made it to the playoffs every year and they had made a run to the championship game in 2011 (against Orlando). They even managed to defeat Orlando 3-2 earlier in the season in Harrisburg.

But Harrisburg was looking depleted heading into Orlando. Key midfielder Jason Pelletier was out injured and there were additional complications with the players that were loaned to Harrisburg from their affiliate MLS side the Philadelphia Union.

You see, the Union were about to play in the U.S. Open Cup final against Seattle the next Wednesday (anybody remember that?). That meant that the Union recalled several players who’d been with the City Islanders most of the season, including Pedro Ribeiro, to fill out their squad for the New York Red Bulls on the same night as the Orlando match.

Orlando, meanwhile, had all the pieces in place to start off a strong playoff run. They had managed to keep a clean sheet their last three matches of the season and their star player, Kevin Molino, had set a new league record with 20 goals in a season. And not only did he lead the league in goals, he led in assists as well.

There was definitely an air of inevitability during the early portions of the match. Many fans in the stands were already sporting Orlando's MLS logo and sign boards advertised 2015 MLS season tickets along the touchline.

On top of that, the commentators were quick to speculate on what Orlando's playoff future was going to look like. They even speculated about whether it would be Charleston or Richmond coming to Orlando for the semi-finals next week before eventually correcting themselves to point out that, of course, Orlando would have to beat Harrisburg first.

But the City Islanders never showed any sign that they considered themselves to be the underdogs. The opening moments of the match were filled with fast end-to-end opportunities as both sides adopted a wide open, pedal to the metal approach. The pace remained high even as the players on both sides were quickly drenched in sweat on a humid Florida evening.

PSP IMAGES 2014

As the first half progressed, Harrisburg still felt like the side in control. They dominated the midfield by frequently intercepting Orlando passes and rushing in to dispossess players whenever the passes were completed. When Orlando did get an offensive opportunity, the Harrisburg defenders quickly closed in and blocked what few shots Orlando could manage.

Harrisburg didn't get many good opportunities on goal, but in the end they only needed one.

After another Harrisburg interception, Jamiel Hardware slipped a pass to Antoine Hoppenot who was making a diagonal run past Orlando's Rob Valentino. Hoppenot blasted the ball past Orlando’s Carl Woszczynski, who only managed to wave as the ball flew by to give Harrisburg the lead.

Orlando attempted to equalize before the half, and many would argue that they should have had the opportunity. It appeared that Harrisburg's Yann Ekra clipped the heels of Orlando’s Adama Mbengue on a slide tackle in the box late in first half added time. The referee waved it off, but if USO Pro had VAR, Orlando would probably have been heading to the spot.

The crowd and commentators didn't seem to feel too nervous when the second half kicked off. Orlando wasn't getting many good opportunities, but there were multiple mentions along the lines of, "still plenty of time left to play” on commentary.

Orlando substitute Dennis Chin seemed to help perk up their offense and they managed to get off a few dangerous shots following corners or set pieces. But the Harrisburg defense adopted a bend but don't break approach. Union loaner Richie Marquez in particular made some crucial blocks in the box to keep Orlando from building a cohesive attack.

Harrisburg, for their part, never attempted to park the bus to preserve their lead. They took plenty of opportunities to spring a counter attack to try and get a security goal. This helped run out the clock and continue to run down the stamina of the Orlando players.

With only about 10 minutes left to play, the reality of the situation began to sink in for the Orlando faithful. The commentators finally realized that, unless Orlando could find an equalizer, their dominant run in USL Pro was about to come to an untimely end.

But Orlando struggled to overcome the same problems that had dogged them the entire evening. They never figured out how to play from behind and their second half was full of poor passes, unnecessary giveaways, and attacks that seemed to peter out into nothing. Harrisburg’s quick and physical approach had completely put them off their game.

This was perfectly encapsulated in the final seconds of the match. Orlando had just been given a lifeline when Harrisburg's Robbie Derschang was shown a straight red for a studs up tackle. Orlando would only have about a minute to enjoy this man advantage and try to get a goal. However, they only managed to quickly turn the ball over and watch as Harrisburg dribbled away the last 30 seconds of their time in USL Pro.

Harrisburg had avenged their loss in the 2011 championship and they went on to defeat the Richmond Kickers and book their place in the championship. Sadly, that's where their run ended as they fell to Sacramento Republic.

Orlando, for their part, seems to have never fully recovered from this defeat. Despite moving to MLS and building a beautiful new stadium they have yet to recapture the success that they had during their USL Pro years. In fact, as of the 2019 season, this is still the most recent postseason match for Orlando.