As we count down to the new year of 2022 — which will be Orlando City’s eighth in MLS and the Orlando Pride’s seventh in the NWSL — and say goodbye to 2021, it’s time to look back at the club’s 10 best moments of the year.
It was July 30 and the hated Five Stripes of Atlanta United were visiting Exploria Stadium to take on Orlando City. The Lions were coming off a humiliating 5-0 loss at New York City FC. It was the team’s worst loss under Oscar Pareja and the worst defeat since 2017. To make matters worse, starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese picked up a knock in the game that had him out for the rivalry match-up against Atlanta United.
The Lions were also missing Sebas Mendez to injury and Daryl Dike to Gold Cup duty.
Atlanta had gotten off to a poor start in 2021 and had just fired manager Gabriel Heinze 12 days earlier. Former USL Lion Rob Valentino was the interim coach and in fact was partly responsible for the Five Stripes turning their season around enough to reach the postseason.
With Gallese unavailable, Homegrown goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar was tabbed for his first MLS start. Stajduhar’s career path to his first start was a long and arduous one. The club’s fourth Homegrown signing back in November of 2015, the academy product and Salem, MA native has been buried on Orlando’s depth chart and has dealt with not only lengthy injury absences, but also battled a 2017 diagnosis of a form of bone cancer called Localized Ewing Sarcoma. It seemed incredible that Stajduhar was finally getting his chance after all that he’d been through.
It was hardly a storybook beginning for Stajduhar in his first start.
A wayward cross by Ruan was cut out by the visitors, who broke the other way in transition. The ball ended up on the foot of Brooks Lennon on the right. Lennon crossed to Josef Martinez outside the area and the Atlanta Designated Player smashed a shot off the right post that caromed just inside the left post for a goal in the game’s first minute. There was nothing Stajduhar could do about it.
Orlando should have pulled that goal back two minutes later but Ruan could not deliver an accurate cross to Benji Michel who had shaken free in the box and needed only to get a touch to tap home the equalizer. Unfortunately, Ruan’s cross had too much pace on it and it skipped past the front of the charging Michel.
Stajduhar made a big save on Erik Lopez in the 16th minute to keep Atlanta from doubling its lead. Five minutes later, Alec Kann denied Michel with a sprawling one-armed save. The back-and-forth first half continued over the next several minutes with each side missing a free header off a set piece. Michel had a couple more opportunities but struggled with his touch in the match, wasting a couple of good scoring chances.
But the Lions got on level footing in the 43rd minute. Ruan forced a save from Kann from a tight angle that won Orlando a corner. Nani delivered a good ball to the penalty spot. Kyle Smith shook free of his mark, ducked low to meet the cross, and headed home for his first MLS goal, tying the match at 1-1.
Chris Mueller nearly gave Orlando the lead at the death of the first half but Kann made a vital save and the teams went to the break knotted at one goal apiece.
Orlando had the better of the play in the first half but couldn’t make the final ball count and that continued to start the second half. The Lions won some early set pieces and Mauricio Pereyra had an open look but couldn’t get his effort on target.
Atlanta regained the lead against the run of play in the 66th minute. The Lions turned over the ball in the midfield when Pereyra let a ball run through for Nani but the captain wasn’t far enough up the pitch to get to it in time and Atlanta regained possession and went on the attack. Working up the left side, then crossed to Marcelino Moreno at the top of the box. Nani couldn’t close him down in time to prevent a shot and Moreno scorched a blast into the upper right corner to make it 2-1.
Oscar Pareja got some offensive substitutes on the field shortly after the Moreno goal, sending on Silvester van der Water and Tesho Akindele — who had played in a Gold Cup match in Texas the night before — in the 74th minute and withdrawing Uri Rosell and Mueller. The subs paid dividends quickly.
Just five minutes after being introduced, van der Water equalized. Pereyra gathered the ball in the middle of the pitch just outside the area and chipped a pass to his left over the defense to Michel. The Homegrown winger headed across the front of goal and van der Water dove low to head the ball past Kann to make it 2-2 in the 79th minute.
Atlanta withdrew Martinez in the 83rd minute as part of a double change and perhaps the visitors were willing to settle for the road point, but the Lions had other ideas.
Just moments later, it was van der Water again impacting the game, as he cut back to the top of the box on the left and sent in a cross. Nani timed his run well, got in behind his defender, and headed home to make it 3-2 in the 87th minute.
NANI FOR THE WIN!— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 31, 2021
What a finish in Orlando. pic.twitter.com/ieqvfOmYVs
Orlando City saw out the final couple of minutes and five more in stoppage time and claimed the victory.
It was just Orlando’s second home win over Atlanta in the all-time series and it carried with it a much-needed three points. But the look on Martinez’s face when Nani scored was perhaps the most satisfying part of all.
Stajduhar was mostly well-shielded by his teammates on the night, having only had to make one save in the match, although it was a good one. The two goals were too well-placed to do much of anything about. After a long and difficult road to his first MLS game, and the roaring start Atlanta got off to, it was satisfying to see the young Homegrown goalkeeper get the win.
The victory kicked off a seven-match unbeaten run in league play (3-0-4), with just a 1-0 Leagues Cup loss in the mix during that span. It was an important (and gutsy) victory, a rivalry win, an emotional one for Orlando’s young goalkeeper, and a worthy moment of being ranked No. 3 in our countdown.
Come back through New Year’s Eve as we count down the remainder of Orlando City SC’s top 10 moments of 2021.
Previous Top 10 Moments of 2021
10. Orlando City takes part in the club’s first international competition against Liga MX side Santos Laguna in the Leagues Cup.
9. Orlando Pride get only their second win ever against Portland as Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux lead the way.
8. Orlando City opens the 2021 MLS season with a club-record six-match unbeaten streak.
7. Orlando Pride start the 2021 NWSL season with a club-record seven-game unbeaten run.
5. Orlando Pride end slide and rekindle their playoff hopes with 2-0 road win over the Chicago Red Stars, giving interim coach Becky Burleigh her first NWSL win.
4. Lions smash San Jose Earthquakes 5-0 to equal their most lopsided MLS win behind braces from Benji Michel and Daryl Dike.