ORLANDO, Fla. – On multiple fronts, an incredible opportunity awaits Orlando City SC.
Win the 2022 US Open Cup Final on Wednesday night (8 pm ET | ESPN+), defeating USL Championship side Sacramento Republic FC in the process, and the Lions secure their first-ever trophy since joining MLS eight seasons ago. They’d lock in a 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot, too.
But fall to Sacramento at their Exploria Stadium home, becoming the first MLS team to lose an Open Cup Final to a lower-division side since the Rochester Rhinos beat the Colorado Rapids in 1999, and they'll enter the history books for the wrong reasons. Compounding that, a second-division team hasn’t reached the historic tournament’s title game since the Charleston Battery in 2008.
The ball is in Orlando City’s court, quite literally, arriving with plenty of pressure. And they’re ready to meet the moment.
“It doesn't matter if they are from USL or they are from MLS or Premier League, it doesn't matter,” said captain Mauricio Pereyra. “Always, the most important thing for a soccer player is to respect the rival that you have in front – knowing that the desire we have to win this trophy they have too. They will fight for it.”
Orlando, who announced a sell-out crowd several weeks ago, are well aware of Sacramento’s Cinderella-esque run to this year’s final. They’ve successively taken down three MLS teams, overcoming the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy before handing Sporting Kansas City a semifinal defeat on penalty kicks. The California-based side has ridden a magic-of-the-Cup wave far, with no plans for it hitting shore just yet.
Looking to avoid becoming the fourth MLS team that’s dethroned, now in a winner-takes-all match, Orlando are preaching calm.
“The way we operate and the way I have recognized this sport in all my years as a player and as a coach is with much respect for any opponent, whether it's in the paper or the opinions of people that think they are better than us or not,” said head coach Oscar Pareja.
“I think our responsibility is to prepare a game professionally and try to do our best to be at our maximum for the opponent you have in front. For me, the context doesn't exist. The only thing that exists is the present and the present is that there is a match tomorrow for a Cup and we are going to be ready."
Orlando have benefitted from playing all five of their previous Open Cup games at home this year, starting nearly four-and-a-half months ago when beating the Tampa Bay Rowdies, one of their USL Championship neighbors in Florida. Then the Lions broke a streak of one-goal or penalty-kick victories in the semifinals, turning on the second-half afterburners to crush the New York Red Bulls 5-1.
“A lot of people around the country may be rooting for Sacramento, but in the stadium, everybody is rooting for us,” said Akindele. “Come game time we're not on our phones, we're not getting phone calls or hearing from social media. All we feel is 99% of the people at our stadium supporting us and I feel that makes it easy to tune out whatever expectations there may be about that history in the tournament.”
Wednesday’s game will be the first Open Cup Final conducted since 2019 (when Atlanta beat Minnesota), with the last two competitions canceled on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this year is the 107th edition of the tournament, with the 1989 St. Petersburg Kickers the only team from Florida to emerge victorious in past editions.
The Lions have reached one final before, dropping the MLS is Back Tournament’s championship game to the Portland Timbers in 2020, playing in a bubble-like environment. That game unfolded without fans in attendance, whereas now a capacity crowd of 25,500 is expected.
“It's going to be an amazing sensation to see Exploria Stadium full and we're going to need everyone there, the support of everybody to hopefully make a party once the game ends,” said midfielder Cesar Araujo.
Orlando are carrying momentum from league play, having won four consecutive games. They sit fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, on the verge of a third-straight Audi MLS Cup Playoffs trip. Core pieces from the Pareja era drive the team, interspersed with crucial 2022 newcomers like Facundo Torres, Ercan Kara and Araujo.
“This group has been together almost three years together, working,” said Pereyra. “We deserve to be in this final. Now we need one more step.”
Akindele, who won the 2016 Open Cup with FC Dallas, said Orlando are feeling “fully rested” after having Week 29 off, last playing a week ago in the league. That provides a springboard for Pareja, who led that FCD squad to Open Cup glory, and his players to cap their journey.
“We respect the history of this country and recognize the Open Cup as the oldest tournament here,” Pareja said. “It has been played by many, many teams [over] many, many years – even before Major League Soccer.
“It has many other teams that have a lot of respect for the Cup, we have it as well. That's why our intention from the first game was trying to win it. Here we are in front of it, in front of the final and we have much to be proud of.”
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