Orlando City is in the final!
That is a statement not heard since 2013. The Lions had lofty ambitions when entering MLS. Five years and four coaches later, Orlando is finally back in a championship match.
Orlando actually won five trophies back in the USL days. In 2011 and 2014, the Lions dominated the league and lost only a combined seven games in those two seasons. In both years, the second-place team had seven losses.
Orlando’s best regular season, though, was 2012. The Lions were nearly unstoppable and finished with a record of 17-1-6 and 57 points — 16 more points than the second-place Rochester Rhinos. However, disappointment struck in the quarterfinals against the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Orlando fell 3-0 early before Matt Luzunaris scored in the 44th minute to bring the score back to 3-1. Corey Hertzog, who already scored and assisted for the Hammerheads, got his brace in the 59th minute. Down three goals, Orlando was able to make a game of it with two goals after the 90th minute. However, the Lions were unable to complete the comeback and fell in the quarterfinals.
Orlando City has a perfect record in championship matches. The Lions were in two — 2011 and 2013 — and won them both. Both games were remarkable and unforgettable moments.
The 2011 match really didn’t get interesting until the second half. Orlando City legend and 2011 Goalkeeper of the Year Miguel Gallardo was given a straight red for tripping Sainey Touray outside the box. Orlando was down to 10 men, with 40 minutes still to play in a 0-0 final.
In came Sean Kelley — the backup goalkeeper who played just two matches all season.
The match opened up then, and Harrisburg City brought the pressure. Kelley made a handful of terrific saves, but his best was probably in the 88th minute. With the game tied, he made a low diving save and held the ball.
The Lions used that save to spark an attack on the other end, and Lawrence Olum put the ball in the back of the net in the 89th minute to give Orlando a 1-0 lead. In the fifth minute of stoppage time, Kelley made his sole mistake of the match. Harrisburg took a corner, and Kelley missed the ball while coming out. JT Noone pounced on the bouncing ball and sent the game to extra time.
Touray scored five minutes into extra time from another corner, and Harrisburg took a 2-1 lead. The Islanders nearly put the game out of reach in the 109th minute, but Jose Angulo’s header only hit the post.
Orlando City had shouts for a penalty kick in the 111th minute go unheard by the referee. A small scuffle broke out on the field, but play resumed. Two minutes later, Dennis Chin was clear on goal when Geoff Bloes took him down. The Lions got their penalty kick, and Bloes received a red card. Lewis Neal emphatically stepped up, put the ball into the back of the net, and sent it to penalties.
Kelley, who already put on a standout performance, saved the first two kicks while the Lions converted both of theirs. Noone and Stephen Basso each scored for Harrisburg, while Charlie Campbell and Luke Boden missed high for Orlando. Tied 2-2, Touray missed wide, Devorn Jorsling scored on his turn, and the Lions won their first-ever championship.
The 2013 final was just as memorable, but for entirely different reasons. This was the season that brought Dom Dwyer to the spotlight. Sent down from Sporting Kansas City to Orlando on a loan spell, Dwyer quickly lit up the score sheet. He scored 15 goals in just 13 matches, and Sporting KC recalled the forward.
The Lions figured out a route to the final without him. They came in second place in the league, trailing the Richmond Kickers by one point.
Orlando demolished the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, 5-0 in the quarterfinal. The Lions then used three goals in the first 20 minutes of the semifinals to get past the Charleston Battery, 3-2. Sporting KC let Dwyer return to Orlando to play in the championship match against the Charlotte Eagles. And it turned into the Dwyer Show.
The match itself was as back-and-forth as they come. First, Stephen Okai opened the scoring in the 20th minute. Those first 20 minutes were the longest spell of the game without a goal. Dwyer leveled the match 13 minutes later and then earned his brace in the 42nd minute to put Orlando up 2-1. Orlando City fans were still celebrating when Christian Ramirez leveled the game in the 43rd minute.
After four goals in 23 minutes, the match went into halftime tied 2-2. The goal-fest picked up even more after the break.
Ramirez earned his second goal of the match. He pulled the Eagles ahead in the 58th minute. But, as was the trend of the game, Orlando leveled it three minutes later. The Lions won a penalty kick, and Dwyer easily converted it, tying the game at 3-3.
Dwyer was not done scoring, though! He got his fourth goal just eight minutes after that. He scored his second goal off a corner, and it was then Orlando’s turn to take the lead. This time, the Lions held it. Chin and Adama Mbengue each scored to put the Lions up 6-3, and the game was finally out of reach.
But still, the Eagles kept coming. Cuitlahuac Meza got one back in the 87th minute, and Chin scored his second in the 90th minute to put the cap on an 11-goal thriller.
Dwyer was named Man of the Match for his four-goal performance. When he returned to Kansas City, the forward helped the MLS side win its championship.
Dwyer is the only player currently with Orlando City to win a championship with the club. Ironically, he is also the single Lion on the injury list for the final. In unprecedented times, the MLS is Back Tournament is already an unforgettable event. But will the Lions make history with their first championship in Orlando’s MLS era?