By FRANCO PANIZO
Orlando City entered the playoffs as the heavy favorites to claim the USL Pro championship. They had done so in 2011 and ramsacked through the regular season this year en route to securing homefield advantage throught the postseason.
No one told the Wilmington Hammerheads that.
The Hammerheads booked their spot in the championship game last Friday night by pulling off a massive 4-3 upset over the Lions in a semifinals game at the Florida Citrus Bowl that was not close until late. The visitors jumped out in front to a 2-0 lead in the first nine minutes of the game, and they scored their third at the half-hour mark.
Orlando responded with a strike of its own just before halftime and while that seemed to give the club momentum going into the second half, some bad luck in terms of multiple shots hitting the post and the Lions' continuous penchant for costly turnovers and poor defending saw them give up a fourth.
Wilmington went down a man shortly after Corey Hertzog had scored his second of the match, but not even the ejection of Dylan Riley in the 64th minute was enough to help Orlando City avoid disaster. The hosts scored two late goals in stoppage time, but they waited too long for the late-game heroics and were knocked out in front of 7,877 stunned fans.
In the other semifinals match on Friday:
The Rochester Rhinos were on the brink of advancing to the championship match but they too were upset after a late goal forced them into extra time and then penalties, where they suffered a heartbreaking defeat to the Charleston Battery at Sahlen's Stadium.
Kendell McFayden put the hosts ahead 10 minutes after halftime, but a stoppage-time goal from Tony Donatelli crushed the Rhinos' hopes of advancing and sent the game to extra time. Neither team was able to break the 1-1 deadlock and the match headed to a penalty shootout that needed seven rounds before deciding a winner.
The Rhinos were up 3-2 heading into their fifth shot and a goal would have punched their ticket through but they missed on that chance and their next two, allowing the Battery to finally win, 4-3, after James Mack converted on his look from 12 yards out.
The USL Pro Championship will take place at 730pm ET on Saturday and the Hammerheads will be heading into Blackbaud Stadium to take on the Battery in a match-up of two teams who made surprising runs to the final.
What do you think of the Hammerheads shocking Orlando City? Surprised the Rhinos could not put away the Battery? Who do you see winning between Wilmington and Charleton in the final?
Share your thoughts below.