After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Open Cup is back. Just like the 2018 and 2019 editions of the tournament, Orlando City is making another run in the competition. In those years the Lions made it to the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, and the club has picked up where it left off with a quarterfinal date against Nashville SC at the end of the month.
This year is different than the other Open Cup runs though, because in 2022 Orlando is competitive in the league. Just as the Lions were during the 2020 and 2021 seasons when the Open Cup was not held, OCSC is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. That was not remotely the case in 2018 or 2019, and it presents a unique challenge for the team.
In years past, the decision to throw full resources and the strongest possible lineups at Open Cup games was an easy one. With the team struggling mightily in league play, the cup competition presented the most likely route to the team landing some silverware, something that has yet to happen since the move to Major League Soccer. There’s even a line of reasoning that playing well in cup games can provide a spark if a team is struggling in the league, and so the only logical choice was to put everything on the line and try to win some silverware.
Oscar Pareja has continued this approach in his first year leading Orlando City in the competition. Aside from some minor rotations, the lineups in Orlando’s three games in the USOC have been very close to full strength and that’s paid off with OCSC still alive in the competition. Where it’s maybe hurt the Lions a little though, has been in MLS play.
The Open Cup games take place midweek, which obviously means Orlando is working on short rest for its next league match-up. That’s been evident in the three performances after USOC games, in which Orlando has won once and lost twice, with one of the losses coming by a heavy margin. The Lions turned in one of their worst performances in recent memory in a 3-0 home loss to the New York Red Bulls four days after beating the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Lions were able to go on the road and beat Toronto 1-0 four days after beating the Philadelphia Union in the Round of 32, but it still took a 92nd-minute goal against the 12th-placed team in the East. Finally, three days after a physically and emotionally draining 120-minute 1-1 draw against Inter Miami — followed by a penalty shootout win — Orlando lost 3-1 to FC Dallas at home.
Part of the losses can be attributed to unlucky scheduling. Dallas sits second in the Western Conference while the Red Bulls are fourth in the East and didn’t lose a game away from home until May 22. The Lions did manage to go on the road and beat a team it should have on paper, short rest and all. The same can’t be said for the other two games though. Orlando was beyond shambolic against New York, mustering only three shots in a game where the Lions looked leggy, sloppy, and flat-out bad. It was an absolutely horrific performance, and the team looked every inch like one that had played a game midweek.
By contrast the team looked pretty good against FC Dallas until the visitors scored in the 67th minute, at which point everything just sort of fell apart. While it would be tempting to lay blame at the feet of playing three games in seven days, Kyle Smith and Jake Mulraney refused to do so, and simply said it was something the team had to learn from. The bigger issue against Dallas may have been missing Rodrigo Schlegel and Cesar Araujo due to being sent off in the previous weekend’s road game at Austin.
The differing manner of all three results reinforces the fact that it isn’t as simple as “playing a midweek game means you’re screwed at the weekend.” Rather, when games are coming thick and fast, maintaining energy and desire (hello NYRB loss) as well as focus and concentration (looking at you, Dallas game) week to week and for the full 90 minutes becomes even more difficult. When an inconsistent team is playing a high volume of matches, the likelihood of widely varying performances increases — a notion which Orlando has proved so far.
Now let me be clear, my intent in writing this piece is not to criticize the club for taking the Open Cup seriously. It just so happens that I absolutely adore the competition. One of my favorite Orlando City games I’ve ever been to was the rain-soaked, weather-delayed penalty kick victory over D.C. United following a 1-1 draw up at the Maryland SoccerPlex back in 2018. Knockout games simply have a different feel to them, and chasing a first-ever piece of MLS-era silverware adds to the experience and atmosphere.
With that being said, it obviously adds to fixture congestion. Orlando has also been in a tight spot with regards to depth lately with Antonio Carlos carrying a long-term injury and Benji Michel and Silvester van der Water also sidelined. Carlos is one of the first names on the team sheet and Benji and VDW see spot starts when Pareja rotates the team and are two of the first names to come off the bench. Missing those guys has complicated things without a doubt.
Fortunately, the schedule provides some respite. Orlando will have a little over two weeks between its loss to Dallas and its next game against the New England Revolution on June 15. Whether or not Benji and Van der Water are back by then remains to be seen, but it at least gives the squad plenty of time to get some rest.
I’m sure there are people out there who might look down on the USOC, and prefer that their team focus on maintaining a good position in the league, especially when being competitive in MLS is still fairly new for the club. For me though, I’m 100% in favor of Orlando City throwing everything it has at the U.S. Open Cup, even though doing so in a season where the Lions are also competitive in league play presents a different challenge than OCSC has faced in the past. I have to say, it’s a pretty good problem to have.