During the Thanksgiving season it’s nice to stop and take a moment to take stock of things that we’re thankful for — friends, family, health, a new job, or whatever it might be. Having taken the time to do precisely that the last few days, I also started thinking about Orlando City.
It might sound silly, but this club is a big part of my life. I’ve been writing for The Mane Land for a little over five years now, I speak with some of my fellow TML staff members almost every day, and watching or going to games are always among the highlights of my week. With all of those things in mind, I wanted to reflect on my three favorite Orlando City games from the 2022 season. Here we go.
Orlando City 5 - 1 New York Red Bulls, U.S. Open Cup Semifinal
This game was just...special. Prior to this season, the semifinals were the farthest Orlando had advanced in the U.S. Open Cup, and back in 2019 OCSC fell to Atlanta United 2-0 at home in excruciating fashion. If that wasn’t enough pressure, it had already been determined that Orlando would host the final if the Lions advanced, and the prospect of a cup final at home was mouth-watering. It wasn’t going to be easy though, as OCSC was up against a New York Red Bulls side that had already blasted them 3-0 at home back in April, and seemed to be Oscar Pareja’s kryptonite.
The Lions started well and had some good chances that they failed to take, but when the Red Bulls scored in first-half stoppage time, feelings of doom started to creep in. The Lions had been having trouble putting the ball in the back of the net all summer long, and there was plenty of reason to be fearful that OCSC would rue the early missed opportunities. It wasn’t to be though. Cesar Araujo was the unlikely goal scorer for the Lions with the last kick of the half, and the passion with which he celebrated his tally would key Orlando for the rest of the game. When he scored again in the 62nd minute to make it 3-1, there was a sense that the game was already over.
A thunderous strike from Facundo Torres provided some insurance with 15 minutes left, and just when you thought things couldn’t get any better a Benji Michel strike on 82 minutes sent Exploria Stadium into rapture and sealed Orlando’s place in the final. It was a night when Orlando showed heart and determination, and it felt like an exorcism of sorts amid a rough patch of form in the league.
Orlando City 2-1 New York City FC
This was one of those games where it felt like the Lions did everything right, but still weren’t going to be rewarded. The Lions struck after just nine minutes when Junior Urso and Facundo Torres executed a slick give and go, and the Bear fired the ball high and hard into the far corner.
Another look at Júnior Urso's goal pic.twitter.com/2ChdWjJrN3— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) August 29, 2022
Orlando controlled the rest of the first half, outshooting the visitors 7-1 and putting three shots on target to NYCFC’s one. But NYCFC leveled things in the 53rd minute after a bad turnover near midfield, and there were fears that OCSC’s inability to make its first half dominance more evident on the scoresheet would come back to haunt the Lions. Credit to them though, the men in purple didn’t quit and deep in stoppage time it finally paid off. Ivan Angulo won a corner that he took himself, and his ball to the near post found Tesho Akindele, whose flicked header evaded Sean Johnson to give Orlando the win and Tesho his second late game-winner in a row. The victory was Orlando’s third in a row and provided both precious points and momentum as the U.S. Open Cup final loomed on the horizon. Feast your eyes on this.
Fought until the end and it paid off.— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 29, 2022
Orlando with the win on a corner! pic.twitter.com/u1kD7YJNfB
Orlando City 3-0 Sacramento Republic, U.S. Open Cup Final
You didn’t see this coming? Orlando’s first piece of MLS-era silverware, won at home in front of a sellout crowd, in joyful fashion? The Lions were favored in this one but that didn’t make it any easier. If anything, it made the fear of being embarrassed at home loom even larger, and a report about possible spying ahead of the match threatened to mar proceedings and put an asterisk next to a potential victory. Much of the game was about as nervy on the field as I’ve felt in The Wall, and as the final quarter of an hour approached, it began to feel like things were lining up for a smash-and-grab job by Sacramento. It wasn’t to be, though. Angulo’s tackle and Michel’s layoff led to Torres smashing a shot home to finally give the Lions the lead, and the celebrations were so loud ESPN’s microphones couldn’t quite handle the noise.
While there were initial nerves about such a narrow lead, they would prove short-lived, as Torres coolly converted from the spot just five minutes later to give Orlando some breathing room. At that point, the celebrations were starting in the stands, but things got even better. Michel changed the game with his pace and ability to stretch the defense when he came on as a substitute, and the Homegrown’s goal with just over two minutes to play was the icing on the cake and sent Exploria Stadium into the stratosphere.
Aside from all of the special sporting significance the game held, it also came at a difficult time for me in my personal life. As silly as it might sound, the Lions’ first trophy since joining MLS also happened to provide me with 90 minutes of glorious escapism at a time when I couldn’t have needed it more, and it’s a night that I look back on particularly fondly because of it.
There you have it, my three favorite games of 2022 in no particular order. I would love to hear from you guys about your favorite games of the year, and why they hold that status for you. Drop your choices in the comments and have a happy rest of your holiday weekend!