It was a gorgeous night for a season-opening Orlando City match when the Lions took the pitch Saturday night to square off against the New York Red Bulls at Exploria Stadium. The assembled 24,088 fans packed into the Purple Palace were not just ready to cheer on the team — they also wanted to celebrate.
That happened before the match, as the club raised a championship banner honoring Orlando City’s run to the 2022 U.S. Open Cup title to the stadium’s rafters — high above the supporters section. The new banner nestled cozily between the club’s USL Pro championship banners from the Lions’ pre-MLS days.
After the Ruckus and the Iron Lion Firm hoisted a gorgeous tifo declaring they were “hungry for more,” the season got underway.
The Red Bulls forced the issue all evening with a smothering press that punished every errant pass and every player who was too slow in moving the ball to its next destination. Although it seemed unlikely the visitors could do that for 90 minutes in the Florida humidity, they did. The Red Bulls, to their credit, made life difficult for Orlando over the course of the match, especially in the opening half. The Lions were forced into some tactical fouls and were fortunate with some misplaced shots by the Red Bulls, reaching the midway point still scoreless.
After the break, the home side made some small adjustments and the Lions were more willing to lump the ball up the pitch to alleviate pressure, evening out the possession a bit but requiring New York to build scoring chances instead of waiting for mistakes and pouncing.
The Lions finally started to get a little more breathing room in the middle of the field and created some half-chances, earning some set pieces along the way. One of those set pieces changed the complexion of the game. A set piece found its way to Cesar Araujo’s head and the young Uruguayan midfielder headed a shot down and toward goal. The bouncing ball found the arm of Sean Nealis and the referee awarded a penalty. After a short wait, the call was upheld by the video assistant referee and Facundo Torres stepped up to the penalty spot.
Torres fired home the game’s only goal and the Lions got a couple of big saves down the stretch from Pedro Gallese to preserve the team’s tradition of getting an opening day result. The Lions’ clean sheet was the team’s fourth straight on opening day — all under Head Coach Oscar Pareja. The victory gave Orlando consecutive opening-day wins for the first time in club history. The Lions now have three wins and six draws in nine MLS openers — all at home.
Orlando City fans saw some new faces — Martin Ojeda, Luca Petrasso, Ramiro Enrique, and Dagur Dan Thorhallsson all made their debuts in the Lions’ primary purple kits.
We hope you enjoy the images below from an exciting night at Exploria Stadium.
Images: Dan MacDonald
Words: Michael Citro