As we count down to the new year of 2021 — which will be Orlando City’s seventh in MLS and the Orlando Pride’s sixth in the NWSL — and say goodbye (and good riddance) to 2020, it’s time to look back at the club’s 10 best moments of the year.
Orlando City has long been in a state of flux at the manager position. In the team’s six Major League Soccer seasons, three different managers had led the team, with nobody truly stamping their image on the club. They all had their moments and showed glimpses of being the long-term answer, but nobody found sustained success, with no postseason appearances.
When the club hired Oscar Pareja, management hoped his MLS pedigree would usher in a new period for Orlando City. Pareja had success with both the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas before a yearlong stint at Club Tijuana in Liga MX. His success with Dallas both on the pitch — his teams made the playoffs every season, won the 2016 Supporters’ Shield, and the U.S. Open Cup — as well as his pedigree developing young talent made him an excellent option for Orlando City.
Through the first two games, however, the Pareja era was off to a rough start. Against Real Salt Lake and Pareja’s former club, the Colorado Rapids, the Lions did very little, gathering one point out of a possible six in the pair of drab fixtures. Granted, team captain and best player Nani was unavailable for selection, so expectations were still fairly high with the return of the skipper in game three, but that game was put on hold.
A months-long pause of all sports in North America plunged the league, and everything frankly, into a quagmire of uncertainty, before ambitious leagues, starting with the Premier Lacrosse League and National Women’s Soccer League, began planning quarantine bubble tournaments. This eventually led to the MLS is Back Tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.
The tournament was rife with controversy and intrigue from within the soccer community and beyond it, and to kick off this ambitious event, Pareja and Orlando City were pitted against their new, noisy neighbors to the south, Inter Miami. It was to be the first meeting ever between the two Florida MLS sides.
Miami came on the MLS scene after a years-long bureaucratic nightmare that took over six years — and still doesn’t include a certain long-term stadium plan — with much fanfare. The David Beckham-led ownership group quickly asserted themselves as one of the most ambitious and deep-pocketed in MLS, spending tens of millions of dollars on transfers and a state-of-the-art facility.
With the return of South Florida to the MLS map, a burgeoning rivalry was seemingly on the way, and MLS is Back played host to this landmark first meeting between in-state foes. This was a very big moment, not just for Orlando, but for the league as a whole.
It was the start of the tournament, first “Florida Derby,” (or as we like to call it, “Tropic Thunder,”© ) and also featured a powerful demonstration from the Black Players for Change.
The game was far from perfect, with plenty of sloppy play and a lack of great match fitness, all expected things after the pause in play. As our David Rohe put it in his five takeaways from the match:
It was to be expected, but all the players were a bit rusty. The occasional defensive giveaway, a pass too heavily weighted, and final touches a bit too late all plagued both sides. Orlando looked to be the better team during the first half, with more possession and a chance on goal, but the players still seemed to be lacking the sharpness one would hope for.
Even though Juan Agudelo put the Herons ahead in the 47th minute, Orlando was in control for much of the night, with 58% possession in the match. Chris Mueller eventually evened up the match in the 70th minute off an assist from team captain Nani.
In the 97th minute, a late moment of magic from Nani gave Orlando the win. A Joao Moutinho cross eventually found the feet of Nani and the captain slotted it home to give Orlando the late lead.
The late heroics provided a climactic ending to an unforgettable night in sports. It also marked Oscar Pareja’s first ever win with Orlando City and laid the groundwork for what would be a magical run at MLS is Back.
Pareja’s Lions went on to finish 11-4-1 in his first season at the helm. His Lions equaled the fewest losses by any MLS team in 2020 and the 11 wins was only one off the club’s MLS record — for a full 34-game season.
Papi’s first victory, combined with the first win in what is sure to become a heated and bitter rivalry in the Sunshine State, is a worthy recipient of our No. 8 moment of the 2020 calendar year.
Come back through New Year’s Eve as we count down the remainder of Orlando City’s top 10 moments of 2020.
Previous Top 10 Moments of 2020
10. The Orlando Pride rally from three goals down to get a result vs. North Carolina.
9. Orlando City drafts forward Daryl Dike.