It's almost that time of the year again. In just one week, Orlando City's run for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup begins in Jacksonville. There's a little more on the line in these knockout tournaments, especially against in-state competition.
Adrian Heath has been adamant that one of City's major goals is to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League and, realistically, the best chance for Orlando to qualify is by winning the Open Cup. There are more incentives, like the $250,000 cash prize for the champions and general pride of earning some silverware. Last season, Orlando was unceremoniously eliminated by the Chicago Fire in a 3-1 quarterfinals loss. It equaled the deepest run ever by the Lions, who were also knocked out in the quarterfinals by the Fire in 2013.
So, Orlando City has added to their arsenal in preparation for a longer Cup campaign. Their biggest issue last season was the strict limitation on international players -- only five per match -- and the general lack of depth on the team. With so many foreign and injured players on the squad last summer, Heath's options were limited.
Unfortunately you can't spend allocation money to buy more slots from the federation. One of the many perks of owning and operating Orlando City B has been getting consistent playing time for the young Lions who stagnated on the end of the bench in 2015. Now, new this season, OCSC can loan up players with USL contracts specifically for the Open Cup on four-day deals. It's a huge game changer for teams like City and it will end up helping them in both the Cup and the league.
Conceivably, Orlando could field a full team next Wednesday and not have a problem. It may be tough selecting just five of their 12 international players, but the Lions could fill the bench without too much of an issue. But then San Jose comes to town just three days later and I'm not sure Heath wants to play a tough match with most of his first team on two days of rest.
With the Eastern Conference as tight as it has been so far, every point is going to matter in the end. Especially when you consider that matches after Cup fixtures last season weren't too good for the Lions. They only took one single point from the three matches immediately following Open Cup games: a 2-0 loss to Montreal, the 1-1 draw against Real Salt Lake, and the 5-3 goal extravaganza loss to New York City. The Impact loss was their only dropped points in the month of June last year and it was an unfortunate blemish during a great run.
Now, Orlando has the option to rest its starters, at least on Wednesday. Should the team progress far enough, Adrian Heath will have to make the tough decision on which competition to prioritize. But for the Armada, who currently sit last in the NASL standings, perhaps some concessions can be made. USL standouts like Pierre Da Silva, Mikey Ambrose, and Tony Rocha have all made their case for a shot with the senior team. Ambrose and Rocha were already heavily involved with the senior team in preseason.
First-round draft picks Hadji Barry and Richie Laryea have been in good form as well. The options that OCB provides have the capability of being in form, something that was not an option last year.
The fourth-round match last season, a 4-4 contest with the Charleston Battery that went down to penalty kicks, is the biggest testament to just how important OCB could be. The Charleston match was Heath's attempt to rest his starters; the majority of the team were reserves that had not played in a competitive match in some time (or at all in Conor Donovan's case).
Seb Hines, who started next to Donovan that night, was even a reserve for the Lions at that point in the season. Dropping a team that consisted of Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, Eric Avila, Lewis Neal and some youngsters into the Open Cup fire resulted in some expected sloppy play and needed three converted penalties from Carlos Rivas just to survive to PKs.
Now, the Lions can select players in midseason form like Hadji Barry, who is rolling with three goals and an assist in his last two OCB appearances, or Tyler Turner, who has come on strong lately and has three goals to his name.
The formula is seemingly simple. If the Lions can field a competitive Cup squad with OCB players filling out the team, it puts less pressure on the first team to perform midweek, which in turn will hopefully lead to more points at the weekend. Who knows, maybe an OCB player or two will be the key to a Cup and a playoff spot.