Orlando City will host the Montreal Impact tonight for the second leg of a home-and-home series. This will be the second time that the club has hosted such a series since joining MLS in 2015. However, during the club’s time in the USL, playing the same team in two consecutive league games was a common occurrence. Let’s take a look at the club’s history when facing same team in back-to-back games and why that can provide some optimism against Montreal.
American soccer has grown significantly since Orlando City left the lower ranks to join the country’s top division. Today, the USL is in the second division and features multiple teams that regularly draw crowds in five digits. Four years ago, members of the third division league were lucky to get 5,000 spectators through the gate and the goal of most clubs was simply to survive. To keep costs down, it was not out of the ordinary to see two teams play each other in the same location twice in a short span of time.
Featuring small clubs with limited finances, reducing the amount of travel was key for the survival of the fledgling league. This was especially important for two teams; Antigua Barracuda and the Los Angeles Blues. While most teams were based between the Mississippi River and Atlantic Ocean, these two teams played their home games over 1,500 miles away from any other. That’s a tremendous stress in a league that usually travels to games by bus. To assist these teams, opponents traveling away would usually make one trip a year, playing two games in three days.
The Lions traveled to Antigua twice, once in 2011 and again in 2012. Playing two games in three days, one of the league’s best teams defeated one of the league’s worst in all four meetings. Playing in a separate division during 2011, Orlando City didn’t face the Blues until 2012, when the league moved to single table. Again, the Lions swept the pair with goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo returning with a pair of clean sheets. The only other time Orlando City has faced the same team in the same venue back-to-back was when the Charleston Battery visited the Citrus Bowl, with the Lions once again taking both games.
The visit from the Impact tonight will be the back end of a home-and-home that, while not common in MLS, has been very common in the USL. In Orlando City’s four USL seasons, the Lions took part in five home-and-home series — one in 2012 and a pair in 2013 and 2014. Those 10 games were very successful for the Lions, only losing one. The 2012 meeting with the Richmond Kickers and 2013 meeting with the Charleston Battery, regularly two of the best teams in the league, each saw the Lions come away with a win and a draw. The following home-and-home included a 2013 makeup game against VSI Tampa Bay FC after a thunderstorm had postponed the originally scheduled meeting in Orlando. The Lions took both of those games and repeated that feat the following season against the Oklahoma City Energy.
The only loss the Lions suffered when facing a team in two consecutive league games during their four-year USL stint came at the hands of the Harrisburg City Islanders in 2014. In mid-August, a pair of first-half goals by Robbie Derschang saw the hosts take a 2-0 lead at the half. They extended that lead to three when Antoine Hoppenot scored in the 53rd minute. Orlando City tried to claw its way back in the final 10 minutes with goals by Kevin Molino and Guiseppe Gentile, but it was too little too late. The following Saturday the Lions returned home and to their usual form with a 3-1 win led by a Molino goal and Darwin Cerén brace.
While the club has had plenty of experience playing home-and-home series during its short history, this is only the second time it’s happened in MLS play. Fans will remember the club’s first MLS home-and-home, as it occurred last season against Atlanta United. The first game was the first time the two teams would meet during the visitor’s inaugural season. An 86th-minute goal by Hector Villalba saw Atlanta leave Orlando City Stadium with a 1-0 win. Eight days later, the Lions appeared to have returned the favor with a 40th-minute strike by Kaká, though missed on television as FOX was busy showing replays of a missed opportunity on the other end, but the same player that sank the Lions a week prior stole a point two minutes into injury time.
Overall, Orlando City has seen great success when facing the same team in two consecutive games. Including both USL and MLS, the Lions are 15-2-3 with a plus-22 goal differential. While the team is definitely less menacing in MLS than it was in USL, the Lions have yet to lose both games of such a series. In a time of uncertainty for the club, maybe that can provide some optimism coming off a 3-0 loss in the first game and the ousting of the head coach.