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.
It had been 10 miserable regular-season MLS games and 11 matches overall without Orlando City beating Atlanta United. Atlanta arrived seemingly fully formed in 2017 behind the billions of dollars of Arthur Blank. The Georgia-based team seemed to magically have the MLS Discovery rights to every young talent in South America and would not be required to jump through some of the same hoops for MLS entry as Orlando City had been. The Five Stripes entered the league looking to pick a fight with the Lions, spouting stupid hashtags and slogans, and generally being more annoying than your little brother when your friends were over.
Then two late goals from Hector Villalba gave Atlanta early bragging rights, turning an Orlando City draw and win into a loss and a draw, respectively. All of that made it easy to hate Atlanta United. Orlando fans no longer needed to hate Atlanta just because MLS said we were supposed to. There were real things to point to, right down to insults from their star player, who seems capable of greater achievements in bigger leagues, yet content to remain the big fish in the small pond.
So, Orlando’s 10-match winless streak in league play against Atlanta — plus a U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss in 2019 — was teeth-grindingly aggravating.
It took 2020 — a historically awful year for nearly everything off the pitch — to turn things around for the Lions. Atlanta took a hit on opening day when Josef Martinez got hurt. But Atlanta United is the love child of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees. You can’t kill it. Atlanta won its first two pre-pandemic stoppage games and everything looked basically the same.
Then MLS is Back came. Orlando City fans were ecstatic about the Lions’ performances in the group stage, but equally jovial about Atlanta going three-and-out without scoring a single goal in the tournament hosted near the City Beautiful at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Atlanta was suddenly the team firing a coach mid-season and being ridiculed for poor play. Remember how good that felt?
Still, there was trepidation when the Lions rolled into Atlanta to play on the plastic grass of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Aug. 29. The best Orlando side in the MLS era against a bad Atlanta team still had many Lions fans on edge. Having Nani and Ruan on the bench instead of in the starting XI didn’t calm any of those nerves. It turned out to be OK.
Orlando City played well on the road and came away with a 3-1 victory, marking the first time the Lions had drawn blood in the series. Rivalries can’t happen until both teams are on the board, so that August victory paved the way for a bitter southeastern feud for years to come.
The Lions jumped on top early. A corner kick from Chris Mueller found the head of Junior Urso, who hit his shot hard at Brad Guzan’s feet. Urso was a little fortunate with the placement, as it handcuffed Guzan and squirted through him and just over the line to make it 1-0 in the 13th minute. It was a good omen for what was to come.
Mueller doubled the lead in the 35th minute. Orlando’s forwards and midfielders had done well to close down Guzan’s passing options throughout the match, forcing the Atlanta keeper to play long. His long ball was won cleanly by Joao Moutinho in the air just on the Orlando side of the midfield line and Mueller picked it up in the attacking half. Cash sent the ball to Daryl Dike in the middle, just outside the top of the area. The rookie drew both center backs to him and split them with his pass to Benji Michel, who was crashing from the right. With Guzan coming out to cut him off, Michel sent the ball left to Mueller, who had continued his run, and the Money Badger slipped an easy finish into the open net to make it 2-0.
Not only was it one of Orlando City’s best team goals of the season, but Mueller’s post-goal celebration also gave us this wonderful meme that will live forever:
Or course, nothing comes easy for Orlando City, and Atlanta United wasn’t quite dead yet. Brooks Lennon pulled a goal back in the 83rd minute, bringing back all those nerves for Orlando fans. But Lions fans didn’t have to stay nervous very long.
City responded three minutes after Lennon’s goal. Urso created second-half sub Nani’s 86th-minute dagger by pressing high and dispossessing Pity Martinez. The Bear then dribbled into the box, drawing Guzan out, and slipped a pass to Nani for the finish, making it 3-1 and ending any potential late drama.
It wasn’t all good news for Orlando. Uri Rosell and Moutinho both picked up injuries and missed the rest of the regular season. Moutinho also missed the playoffs, and his postseason surgery will have him miss a chunk of 2021 as well. Having those two in the lineup the rest of the year might have been enough to propel Orlando to the Supporters Shield and a bit deeper in the playoffs.
Still, the Lions went on to remain unbeaten against Atlanta the rest of the year, getting two draws before earning their first home win in the series in a 4-1 blowout of the Five Stripes on Oct. 28. The 10-game winless streak in the series was suddenly a four-game unbeaten streak (2-0-2), heading into next season.
The release of three years of frustration with that August win in Atlanta — not to mention three more unbeaten games in the series before season’s end —is worth remembering, and it’s certainly worthy of our No. 6 moment of 2020.
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.
8. Oscar Pareja picked up his first win as Orlando coach in the Lions’ first Tropic Thunder meeting with Inter Miami CF.
7. Orlando City beats Columbus despite being down to just 10 men.