Rodrigo Schlegel: “That’s football. One minute you think that you’ve won, the next you don’t.” (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Major League Soccer gives out all sorts of awards, but none for the Most Unlikely Hero of a Playoff Match.
If there was one, there is little doubt that Orlando City SC defender Rodrigo Schlegel would win it hands down because his hands were up during the most crucial time of the MLS Cup Playoff game against New York City FC Saturday.
Playing as an emergency back-up goalkeeper, Schlegel made a two-handed save on Gudmundur Thórarinsson to help the Lions secure a 6-5 shootout victory after the team endured a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
“What happened today was crazy,” Orlando City head coach Oscar Pareja told reporters after the game.
“It’s amazing,” midfielder Nani said. “It’s amazing the personality he had in that moment and he wanted just to go to the goal. He wanted to save the penalty.”
That occurred when goalkeeper Pedro Gallese was sent off with his second yellow card of the match for encroachment. Gallese saw red after making what looked like he had made the game-winning save in the fifth round. The Lions tried to bring on reserve keeper Brian Rowe as his replacement, but they could not make the substition.
So, Schlegel was suggested by two teammates.
“Nice story to tell, which is something obviously that we never plan,” Pareja said. “It was not in any plan, even though we try to predict the game that much. What happened today was crazy and the story behind it is that we were in this discussion on Brian [Rowe] not being able to select, I was already advised by everybody because we knew that he couldn’t go. Rodri came and said ‘Papi, I can do it.’ [Andrés] Perea came and said ‘No, I want to do it. I will stop that one.’
“Then, Brian came and Pedro came and Pedro said ‘Give it to Rodri.’ Rodri told him ‘I was a goalkeeper when I was in the academy,’ so we just gave him the gloves and prayed. He did an outstanding job on showing the personality. After what just happened, I can laugh, but believe me that this is insane tonight.”
Schlegel entered the fray confident.
“The team had all the confidence in me, the technical staff had all the confidence in me,” he said. “Thanks be to God and the strength of this team that we were able to stay strong through 90 minutes and then through extra time and then able to get the result that we wanted in penalty kicks to advance to the next round.”
To truly appreciate Schlegel’s accomplishment, you must remember that the 23-year-old reserve center back played all of 645 minutes over 10 games and seven starts for Orlando City this season and played all of two minutes as a substitute over the past five matches.
And oh yes, he had never played professionally in the net before Saturday.
“The truth is that I don’t have any history of being a goalkeeper,” he said. “Back in Argentina during my youth games, when I was 15- or 16-years-old, we didn’t have goalkeepers available because they were injured. At that moment the coach asked who would like to step up and I said that I would so I played as a goalkeeper for three matches.
“Now and then when I play with my friends and uncles I’m the goalkeeper. I don’t know if my teammates had done this before so that’s why I decided to ask. I had the confidence and luckily we got the result that we wanted and we moved to the next phase of the playoffs.”
He didn’t save the first attempt he faced, which Nicolás Acevedo converted.
“I stayed in the middle of the goal, the second I decided to go to the right side so the left side was the only one missing. I decided to go there, thank God the ball came to me and I was able to make the save.”
When Schlegel stopped Thórarinsson’s attempt with both hands, he went wild in celebration, as though the game was over, but the shootout was still tied at 5-5.
“I thought this evening was Pedro [Gallese]’s evening, but we must choose now,” Nani said. “Pedro was amazing during the game.”
Schlegel was just glad it was over as Orlando City advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“That’s football. One minute you think that you’ve won, the next you don’t,” he said. “You can say this should have happened or this didn’t, but really what matters is the end result. You’ve got something where it happens one minute and you’re happy and then you find out that maybe you didn’t win, then you did again and you’ve got to go through the same thing. It’s very difficult with these emotions, but that’s just the beauty of sport. I’m just really glad to be here with my team, these teammates, this technical staff and just to be able to do what we do and see the beauty of our game like that.”