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Orlando City’s MLS Destiny Has Always Been Intertwined with New York City FC

It’s fitting that OCSC will face NYCFC in its first playoff game, as the Lions’ most historic MLS moments have involved their fellow 2015 expansion colleagues.

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

With Orlando City set to play its first ever postseason game in Major League Soccer, it’s only fitting that the opponent is New York City FC. The two teams entered the league together and have been joined at the hip throughout their history in the league, even though the teams’ fortunes didn’t evolve the same way.

On May 21, 2013, New York City Football Club was officially named as Major League Soccer’s 20th team. Six months later — almost to the day — on Nov. 19, 2013, MLS named Orlando City SC as the league’s 21st club. The two teams’ destinies were linked forever at that time and, since then, the purple-clad Lions have seen some of the club’s most historic and iconic moments with the sky-blue-wearing Pigeons on the other team’s bench.

Both teams entered MLS in 2015 and the league pitted the two sides against each other right from the start.

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

2015: Orlando’s First MLS Match, Point, Hat Trick

In addition to entering the league together, OCSC and NYCFC immediately were scheduled to face each other in their MLS debuts on March 8, 2015. The official announcement came on Dec. 19, 2014 that the two 2015 expansion sides would meet on opening weekend in the Citrus Bowl in front of a national television audience on ESPN2. The Lions were running the first of their two #FillTheBowl campaigns to try to sell every seat possible in the mammoth stadium just down the road from where the club’s new palace was being built. It was a successful campaign, as the opening day attendance of 62,510 provided an electric backdrop for the first game.

The historic first game for both sides took place on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Orlando. Team captain Kaká gave an impassioned speech to his teammates in the locker room before taking the field for the Lions’ MLS premiere.

Adrian Heath’s lineup in his preferred 4-2-3-1 included Donovan Ricketts in goal behind a back line of Brek Shea, Seb Hines, Aurelien Collin, and Rafael Ramos. The defensive midfield included Cristian Higuita and Amobi Okugo, behind an attacking midfield of Lewis Neal, Kaká, and Kevin Molino, with Young Designated Player Carlos Rivas deployed as the striker up top. The visitors started goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who signed with Orlando City a couple of years later.

The teams fought back and forth for the opening 45 minutes, with Hines and Kaká coming closest to opening the scoring but neither side could bloody the other. The visitors finally drew first blood in the 76th minute when Mix Diskerud scored his club’s historic first goal. Things looked dire for Orlando when Collin was sent off in the 83rd minute after a serious foul on NYCFC captain David Villa. But Kaká electrified the Citrus Bowl faithful in the 91st minute when his free kick attempt deflected off the wall and in for Orlando’s first goal.

“I’ve scored many goals in my career but I put this goal in a special place because it was very, very special to me,” said Kaká after the match.

The Lions held on to get the 1-1 draw and their first ever point. Their history with the Pigeons was just getting started. The teams split the season series 1-1-1, with NYCFC getting the first win in the series at Yankee Stadium on July 26, 2015 by a 5-3 final score. Rookie striker Cyle Larin — called into service earlier in the year due to a rash of injuries at the position — netted the Lions’ first MLS hat trick, scoring in the 57th, 74th, and 85th minutes. Larin’s third pulled Orlando within a goal, but Diskerud scored the insurance marker in the 93rd.

Larin became the first Orlando City player to earn MLS Player of the Week honors for his performance and also made the MLS Team of the Week.

Orlando finally got on the board in the series on Oct. 16 of that inaugural season, winning 2-1 at the Citrus Bowl thanks to Larin’s brace. That was the Lions’ fifth consecutive win — a club MLS record at the time — and kept Orlando in the playoff hunt entering Decision Day.

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

2016: Lions Hire Former NYCFC Coach Jason Kreis

In the midst of Orlando City’s second season, Heath was fired after a pair of embarrassing losses — one at the death of extra time in the U.S. Open Cup and one away to FC Dallas on July 4 — despite the fact that those losses came on the heels of a six-game unbeaten streak (3-0-3) that had the Lions in the playoff race. Coincidentally, one of those six matches was a thrilling 2-2 draw at Yankee Stadium in which Julio Baptista and Kevin Molino rallied the Lions from a 2-0 deficit. That was Orlando’s second result of the season at Yankee Stadium, after a 1-0 win on March 18 on yet another Larin goal.

After a few games under interim coach Bobby Murphy, Orlando City named former NYCFC manager Jason Kreis as the team’s second-ever head coach on July 19, 2016. Kreis won his first game at the helm against New England and went 3-2-2 in his first seven matches in charge, including a 2-1 home win over New York City FC on Kaká’s first MLS brace on Aug. 28. Orlando City finished the season 2-0-1 against the Pigeons.

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

2017: First Game, Win, and Loss in Orlando City Stadium

The Lions finally opened their downtown, soccer-specific stadium to start the 2017 season. Then known as Orlando City Stadium, the magnificent purple palace was the first in MLS to feature a safe standing section for supporters (which is where I saw the game from). The building was set to open on March 5, 2017 and the opponent was once again New York City FC. The sold-out crowd held its collective breath when team captain and talisman Kaká went down with an injury inside of the first 10 minutes and had to be subbed out for Giles Barnes.

But moments later the Lions scored their first goal in the new building and it was that man again. Larin rose high in the air to nod home Barnes’ cross to make it 1-0 in the 15th minute. Joe Bendik held down the fort in goal and Orlando City’s historic first win in its new stadium came at the expense of the Pigeons. It was also Orlando’s first opening-day win in MLS after comeback draws in 2015 and 2016. Bendik’s backup that day was Saunders, the former NYCFC starter.

That win started a run of six consecutive home wins for Orlando City to open the new building, and seven unbeaten overall (6-0-1).

The Lions went 2-1-0 against New York City in 2017, with a 2-1 win at Yankee Stadium on April 23 — with Larin continuing to torture the Pigeons with two more goals to counter Villa’s strike — before losing at home for the first time in the series on May 21 by a 3-0 score. Not only was it NYCFC’s first road win in the series, but it was also Orlando City’s first loss at the stadium that later became known as Exploria.

SOCCER: JUL 26 MLS - New York City FC at Orlando City SC Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2018: Out Goes Kreis

The 2018 season started a bit wobbly for Orlando, as the Lions began the year 0-2-1, including a 2-0 loss at New York City FC on March 17. But the team then ran off six consecutive victories and seemed to be building momentum before a series of injuries decimated key position groups, particularly the back line. Those six wins gave way to six straight league losses — wrapped around a 3-0 road U.S. Open Cup win at Miami United FC — and one of those defeats was a 3-0 woodshedding at Yankee Stadium on June 2. Midfielder Tony Rocha, currently with NYCFC, played center back for Orlando that day.

Two losses later, Kreis was shown the door on June 15, just as his players were starting to get healthy and return to the lineup. After a few games under Murphy, James O’Connor became head coach. O’Connor’s first match against NYCFC came on July 26 and he didn’t fare any better than Kreis, with the Lions falling 2-0 to go 0-3-0 in the season series without scoring a single goal.

Dan MacDonald, The Mane Land

2019: The Running of the Wall

The 2019 MLS season was a forgettable one for Orlando City overall. The Lions went 9-15-10 and O’Connor was fired after the final match. The Lions and Pigeons drew their two meetings — a 2-2 Orlando City comeback at home on opening day that could have been a win if an obvious handball in the box on Maxime Chanot had been called, and a 1-1 affair at Yankee Stadium on April 27.

But the teams played one of their most memorable matches of the year in the third meeting with a berth in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals on the line. The match took place at Exploria Stadium on July 10 and was a nervy affair. The opening half featured few clear-cut chances and the game remained scoreless into the second half.

Sebas Mendez sent Nani down the left in the 61st minute and the Lions’ captain sent a perfect cross for Chris Mueller to head home to open the scoring. Orlando City held firm from that point on until the sixth and final minute of stoppage time. A ball into the area took a deflection and fell at the feet of NYCFC’s most dangerous player, Maxi Moralez, who fired a shot off of Robin Jansson and past backup goalkeeper Adam Grinwis to make it 1-1 at the death. The goal sent the match into extra time, where neither team found the net and it went to penalties.

The shootout was set to take place at the south end of the stadium, which was had been closed to fans for the midweek cup game. Undeterred by security and unwilling to allow the penalties to be taken without them, the supporters emptied out of the safe-standing section at the north end and ran the length of the concourse to take seats behind the south goal in what has since become known as the “Running of the Wall.” Buoyed by the fans’ actions, Grinwis denied Alex Ring in the first round of penalties and four of the five Lions made their spot kicks. Grinwis then saved Chanot’s effort on the final shot in a moment of glorious karmic retribution and Orlando City advanced 5-4 on penalties to advance to the USOC semifinals for the first time in club history.

Orlando City SC v New York City FC - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

2020: Fastest Brace, First Playoff Match

All of this history brought us to 2020, a year in which Orlando City went 1-0-1 in the season series. The Lions scored a 3-1 victory in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament on July 14 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. Mueller scored the fastest brace in Orlando City’s team history, netting goals in the fourth and 10th minutes, with Tesho Akindele adding another goal later. It was more than enough to offset Jesus Medina’s strike for New York City FC. Combined with the team’s previous win over Inter Miami, the victory gave new OCSC gaffer Oscar Pareja his first back-to-back wins as the Lions’ coach. It was just one year and four days after the Running of the Wall.

The teams last met just a month ago — almost to the day — on Oct. 14. Mueller again scored early for Orlando, giving him a three-match goal-scoring streak against the Pigeons and four goals in his last five against NYCFC. But Keaton Parks got a favorable deflection off a Pedro Gallese save and tied the game just before the half in an eventual 1-1 draw at Exploria Stadium.

The next chapter in the series has the biggest stakes yet. The Lions were poised to enter the postseason on a high note before a five-minute meltdown allowed Nashville SC to turn around a 2-1 deficit and win 3-2 in the regular-season finale. Meanwhile, New York City FC has won its last four games and ended the year as the league’s hottest team.

Whatever happens this coming Saturday, it will be another chapter in a six-year rivalry that has been historic for Orlando City and noteworthy for both clubs.