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Top Dog to Underdog: The Orlando City Story

The Lions went from dominating to looking up the standings in the transition from the USL to MLS.

Philadelphia Union v Olando City Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Those who were there will never forget the heydays of Orlando City in the USL. Championships in 2011 and 2013 highlighted a dominant side that paved the way for the club’s move to Major League Soccer in 2015. Since then Orlando City has failed to make the playoffs, is on its fourth coach, and still hasn’t had a breakout season. Let’s look at how the Lions went from top dog to underdog in seemingly no time at all.

Things couldn’t have started better for the club in 2011. After a loss to the Richmond Kickers in the first match, Orlando City went on an 11-match undefeated run that culminated in a 15-3-6 regular season record and winning the Commissioner’s Cup. The Lions followed that up in the playoffs by defeating the Harrisburg City Islanders on penalty kicks 2-2 (3-2). In 2012 Orlando again won the Commissioner’s Cup on a 17-1-6 record but was unable to reach the championship match, falling 4-3 to the Wilmington Hammerheads.

The Lions returned to glory the following season, finishing second in the regular season and rolling through the playoffs to the championship. A 5-0 drubbing of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds was followed by a 3-2 win over the Charleston Battery, and finally, there was a barn burner match against the Charlotte Eagles to decide it all. Dom Dwyer scored four goals in the 7-4 win over the Eagles to give Orlando City it’s second USL championship trophy. In 2014 the Lions again won the Commissioner’s Cup, though they weren’t able to get past the Harrisburg City Islanders in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

With two USL championships and three Commissioner’s Cups in just four years. It is hard to be more of a top dog than that in professional sports. Indeed, the Lions’ success, partnered with a raucous supporter base, are two big reasons why Orlando City made the jump to MLS in 2015. Unfortunately, that jump also resulted in the top dog becoming the underdog.

In 2015 hopes were still high. Orlando City signed 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaká, as well as some promising young talent. The club was being led by the only skipper they the Lions had known, Adrian Heath. Cyle Larin emerged as a dynamic striker, winning Rookie of the Year and scoring 17 goals. The Lions finished five points outside the playoffs in seventh place, though no one was too disappointed. It was the club’s first year in MLS after all. It was a good start, but it only got worse from there.

An eighth-place finish in 2016, 10th place in 2017, and 11th-place finishes in 2018 and 2019 have had Orlando City continually looking up at the competition. It’s been argued that the front office didn’t give Heath the three years needed to complete the transition to MLS. Less time was given to his replacements Jason Kreis and James O’Connor. Now, Óscar Pareja has the reins. Once again there is optimism, as fans hope that the accomplished coach can replicate the success he had at FC Dallas and return the Lions to the promised land.

For now, Orlando City still must be presumed to be an underdog in MLS. We have nothing to point to that could contradict that stance. Despite it being a manufactured “rivalry,” the Lions have yet to beat Atlanta United. The team has yet to sniff the playoffs, or even a U.S. Open Cup trophy. It can be hard when a team has accomplished so much earlier in its history to deal with the current situation. There is no MLS hardware in the cabinet yet, and until the Lions make the playoffs there is every reason to consider them the underdogs.

For those who may think I’m being too harsh, consider that I love this club. It is my love for this club that lets me be aware of the flaws but still hope for the best. I start every season, and even every match, with two separate feelings. One is in my mind, analyzing the cold hard facts, good or bad. The other is in my heart, always believing anything is possible. It is what makes supporting a club great even when that club is the underdog.