By: Andy Lohman
The 5,750 fans in attendance at Saturday’s match between the Washington Spirit and the Orlando Pride saw more than just a soccer game. They saw an emotional and powerful display of community.
The match was the first game played by a professional Orlando sports team since the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people and injured 53 others. In the face of such a terrible act of hate, the atmosphere at the Maryland SoccerPlex was one of love.
“The beauty of this game is that it brings people together, that’s why we do what we do,” Orlando goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris said. “Today if you look at the crowd, there’s not Washington Spirit fans versus Orlando Pride fans. Today we were just one collective group coming together to celebrate the lives of the people who didn’t make it out of Pulse and the victims’ families.”
The rainbow imagery often associated with the gay community could be seen all around the stadium. From the signs and flags brought by supporters to t-shirts worn by the teams during the pregame ceremonies, rainbows shone on the field from every angle. Painted on the pitch at midfield were the words “We Stand With Orlando” around a ribbon that was half rainbow flag, half American flag that has become the symbol of the tragedy. It served as a subtle but constant tribute as the game unfolded on the field around it.
The tributes were not just visual. First, a moment of silent reflection was observed by all before the game got underway. Then perhaps the most powerful tribute occurred in the 49th minute, just after the stat of the second half. In honor of the 49 victims, the capacity crowd stood and respectfully filled the stadium with applause; while the players took it upon themselves to actually stop play on the field without a referee whistle to be heard. Washington midfielder Diana Matheson and Harris were among those who led the players in joining in the fans’ applause.
Tribute to Orlando as play stopped in the 49th minute
“That was a special moment,” Washington goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé said afterwards. “It was extremely emotional. In those moments I think you just take a breath and your heart went to all the people whose lives are affected, family, friends, the whole LGBTQ community. The biggest thing is giving your love and your prayers to them and sending your heart there.”
“I felt it was important for us to show a sign of unity,” expressed Spirit Head Coach Jim Gabarra following his team’s 2-0 win. “I think to be able to do what we did in the 49th minute where both teams stopped play of the ball, the ball wasn’t knocked out of bounds, the referee didn’t blow the whistle, we showed a sign of unity within the competitive environment for what’s happened. I think it was an important sign and we were glad to do it.”
The game itself was an exciting one. Washington midfielder Estefania Banini showed great composure to score the first goal in the ninth minute. Washington forward Francisca Ordega was lively in the attack and netted a goal of her own. Each was the first goal of the season for the pair of internationals from Argentina and Nigeria respectively. Orlando forward Alex Morgan was threatening at times, once late in the first half drawing a world-class save from Labbé.
While the Spirit will take the 3 points, Saturday was about so much more than the score. It was about the community of soccer fans showing support for the city of Orlando and the victims of the attack. It was about honoring the 49 lives lost. Above all, it was about love.