Orlando City’s run to winning the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup also resulted in qualification for the 2023 Concacaf Champions League. While it’s exciting for fans to see their club fighting for a continental championship, it adds more games to potentially the longest season in club history. As a result, the Lions will rely more on reserve players in 2023.
In addition to MLS, Open Cup, and Champions League games, this year is also the start of the revamped Leagues Cup. Finishing in the top 15 of the Supporters’ Shield standings last season, Orlando City will host a pair of games against the Houston Dynamo and Santos Laguna, the team it hosted in the 2021 Leagues Cup. If Orlando finishes in the top two in the three-team group, it’ll advance to the single-leg knockout stage and play up to five more games.
In total, the Lions could end up playing as many as 55 competitive games during 2023, by far the most in club history. Even if they get knocked out in earlier stages of the tournaments, they’re guaranteed to play at least 38 games. Fortunately, the Champions League will be over by the time the Leagues Cup starts. However, the third-place match and final of the Leagues Cup is the same week as the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, which Orlando City has advanced to in the last two editions of the tournament.
If the Lions make a run in the Champions League or Open Cup, it will increase the number of two-game weeks. The number of games between the MLS regular season and Open Cup is too much for the regular starters to play in each one, so adding more cup competitions requires a greater need for reserves to step up.
Unfortunately, depth is a problem for most MLS teams and Orlando City is no different. In most positions, Orlando’s starters can compete with any team in the league, but there’s a drop-off between them and those on the bench. Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja will likely have to rely on players with little or no first-team experience in knockout competitions.
Last season, the Lions only played in two competitions and didn’t need all the players on the senior roster. Homegrown Players Wilfredo Rivera and Alex Freeman didn’t appear at all for the first team, and 2022 MLS SuperDraft pick Jack Lynn played sparingly. That should change this year.
The loss of Joao Moutinho and Ruan means Homegrown Michael Halliday will likely have a bigger role with the team. Benji Michel also left the club for Portugal, leaving less depth in the attack. The club had three first-round draft picks this year, tying 2021 for the most in club history, and will likely need them to contribute in some fashion this year. The surprising retirement of second-round selection Luis Grassow makes the need for the first-round players greater.
While depth is a problem for the Lions and will usually be for MLS sides, the team does have some big additions. The club signed new Designated Player Martin Ojeda on Jan. 7 and added MLS veteran midfielder Felipe Martins earlier in the off-season. Austin FC declined an option to keep Martins in 2023, but he provides experience that will be needed by the team when the starters need rest.
As usual, MLS will take precedence this coming year. The continental championship isn’t viewed as significantly as it is in Europe or South America, and the MLS season will always be more important than the Open Cup or Leagues Cup. This is shown annually when MLS teams play a much less experienced squad in the early stages of the Open Cup.
However, both the Leagues Cup and Open Cup provide a pathway to the expanded 2024 Concacaf Champions League. The top three teams of the Leagues Cup qualify, in addition to the Open Cup champion, potentially resulting in the Lions playing two significant games within four days.
Regardless of how well Orlando City plays in 2023, it will likely play the most games in club history. The Lions could end up playing significantly more games this season in the same timeline. As a result, reserve players and those still developing could play a key role for the first team. The club will rely on those players to handle this year’s congested schedule.