Takeaways: Orlando City is back?

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Courtesy of Terrance Coakley

A night so spectacular you can only hope we’ll get to re-live it again in just a few weeks’ time.

The magic of the Cup was on full display on Wednesday night, as Orlando City rallied from a goal down to put up an improbable five straight unanswered goals en route to securing the first Open Cup Final berth in club history and putting the Lions one win away from their first trophy as a club since the 2013 USL Pro Championship on what will be exactly nine years to the day come September 7 at Exploria Stadium.

An unbelievable night, yes, but there’s more work to be done when Sacramento Republic FC, the Cinderalla story of the tournament, comes to town hoping to be the first non-MLS club to win the Cup since the Rochester Rhinos pulled off the upset all the way back in 1999. To say that Orlando City is the villain of the US soccer community in this matchup would be an understatement. It’s safe to say that nobody outside Orlando’s fanbase is rooting for the MLS side to prevail here.

But before we look forward, let us reflect on the night that was and jot down some takeaways from the 5-1 victory.

Goals, goals, goalssssss

Who saw that coming?

Orlando City, a team with a combined xG of about 2.6 over their last four league matches, suddenly bursting out for five goals was a sight to be seen. Two from Cesar Araujo and one from each Mauricio Pereyra, Facundo Torres, and Benji Michel led the way for the Lions.

So many to select from, but perhaps my favorite goal of the night came from Pereyra just after the halftime break, which gave Orlando the lead they wouldn’t let go of again. The long-ball switch to Joao Moutinho on the left side, his patient hold to allow the over-lapping Alexander Pato to reach him, the three attackers crashing the net on Pato’s run at the touchline, and Pereyra’s 50-yard run to reach the loose cross and blast it home for the go-ahead goal. You can’t draw those up any better.

It’s been a long time coming for an outbreak like this. The Lions have struggled to create and score chances over the last couple of months. To this point, they had only scored more than two goals in a game just once and hadn’t scored more than one in their last previous four entering the night. Despite the answers being seemingly nowhere to be found, you had to think this sort of outburst would come eventually.

Now, having it happen in the semifinals against one of the best road teams in MLS this season certainly wasn’t what I was personally picturing. Still, a squad with enough attacking talent to score far more goals than they have this season has left far more to be desired. Sometimes you just need the right moment to put it all together, and for this group they found it.

Is Orlando City back?

Listen, I’m obviously not trying to be naive here. One excellent performance isn’t enough to erase everything we’ve seen over the last two months and convince us all that things are suddenly different. But then again, we saw a style and performance that Orlando has been missing for a while. Could it be back?

Oscar Pareja sat Ercan Kara for this one, calling instead upon Benji Michel to be the point man up top, with Pato and Torres flanking him on the wings. Overall: it worked.

The Lions looked reminiscent of their peak performances in 2020 when Nani and Chris Mueller were cutting in from the wings, creating space on the outside for overlapping runs and finding lanes for Mauricio Pereyra to exploit. Having Moutinho back has made a huge difference, giving Orlando an avenue to attack down the left that they’ve been missing badly in his absence.

He was able to play off the dynamic presences of Pato, Michel, and Torres to create chances and push the play down the right. With Pato shifting in often to act as a false No. 9 below Michel, that allowed Pereyra to drop deep, putting him in a spot where he can operate much more efficiently with his long-ball capabilities and teaming with Araujo in the deep midfield to start effective counterattacks.

All of this looked like the Orlando City of old, a team that could defend strongly in their own half, build cohesively from the back, and run it at you with quick attacks from the outside. It makes you wonder why Pareja hasn’t been directing this style of play all along.

Sure, the pieces haven’t always been available as health has taken out guys like Moutinho and Antonio Carlos for long stretches, but in their absence, the Lions have looked toothless in attack. With those two back, the impacts are noticeable.

Maybe this is the start of something more? Time will tell.

A night to remember

One of the things about having followed Orlando City for so long now is that you can probably count on one hand the amount of extraordinary games that will always live in the lore of the club’s MLS era.

  • The MLS debut against New York City FC in front of a sold-out Camping World Stadium.
  • The first game at Exploria Stadium
  • The first Running of the Wall against NYCFC in the Open Cup quarterfinals
  • The first playoff game at Exploria Stadium (also against NYCFC, oddly) and the penalty kick shootout
  • And now this semifinal victory over New York.

Nights like these don’t come around often enough. They seem to be the ones that truly bring all of Orlando City fandom together, where the past failures of the club are moot, and all that matters for two hours, five, twelve, a week, whatever, is that there’s something to celebrate and it’s something that matters.

We follow sport because we love competition, and we love following this club because, well, it’s just what we do. And it’s the nights like this, through all of the trials and tribulations that Orlando City has been through over the last eight years as an MLS franchise, that makes it all worth it.

Win or lose (preferably win), the Final on September 7 is going to be one special night, eight years in the making. There won’t be any other place in the world you’d want to be than Exploria Stadium on that night. This fan base was built for this moment. See you there.

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