Ahead of Orlando City SC’s US Open Cup semifinal against the New York Red Bulls on July 27, the leaders of the team held a players-only meeting.
Their 2022 season had been mixed up until then. Sure, Orlando were in the semifinal of the historic national tournament, but they needed penalties to advance from the previous two rounds. Their play in MLS was inconsistent and, at that point, had produced one win in their last six league games.
Whatever was discussed behind those doors, well, something clicked.
Against the Red Bulls, they were imperious. Orlando won 5-1, a sweeping victory at home to ensure they’d host the Open Cup final, to be played Wednesday evening at Exploria Stadium (8 pm ET | ESPN+) against Sacramento Republic, a standout USL Championship club aiming to become the first non-MLS team to win the competition since 1999.
“It’s great to see a group of players that committed; it’s all credit to them how they united,” Luiz Muzzi, Orlando's vice president of soccer operations and general manager, told MLSsoccer.com. “You can’t really plan that. It’s great to see it coming together from the players.”
Orlando are yet to win a trophy in their club’s MLS history. They hadn’t reached the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs until their sixth season (2020) in the league. Hosting the Open Cup final could be a new apex for this club… if it goes their way.
“It’s the biggest game since I’ve been here, that’s for sure,” technical director Ricardo Moreira said. “Fighting for a Cup in front of our sold-out crowd, it’s the most important moment I’ve been in Orlando.”
The run to this point has been memorable.
Before that thrashing of the Red Bulls, Orlando City got an equalizer deep into stoppage time against Nashville SC, before winning that quarterfinal in penalties. They won a controversial free kick and a missed clearance led the ball to land at the feet of center back Rodrigo Schlegel, who poked it home. Big moments seem to find Schlegel, who memorably stepped in as goalkeeper during their lone playoff win in club history, against New York City FC in 2020.
“The Nashville game, man, it went all the way,” Muzzi said. “The right bounce, to the right player, in the right spot. You can train however you want to train, plan however you want to plan, but at some point, you need the ball to bounce your way, right? We’re fortunate for those moments and we’ve taken advantage of it.”
By nature, sporting directors and head coaches are kind of control freaks. To be successful in this role, they try to account for everything. It’s the same across all sports, not just soccer, obviously. But you can’t plan for everything.
“I’m getting to the end of these games and it feels like I’m running marathons, my legs are shaking," Muzzi said. "But I didn’t move from my chair! Not just in soccer but in life in general, there’s unpredictability, you need some luck. Sometimes it goes against you.”
What you can plan for is roster building. Orlando underwent a massive overhaul this winter. Awaiting to host a Cup final and sitting comfortably above the playoff line in the Eastern Conference (fifth place), the first season of their new era is going well.
Mark Briggs and Tesho Akindele on U.S. Open Cup
A new era
Orlando City’s offseason – the first under the Wilf family's ownership – saw forwards Nani and Daryl Dike leave, among other departures.
Nani, in particular, had been so important in lifting the levels around the club during his three seasons in Florida. The Lions opted not to pick up his contract option, so the Portuguese legend and former captain left as a free agent. US international Dike joined English Championship side West Bromwich Albion in a club-record $9.5 million transfer, a move the player wanted.
“We’re happy with the end results so far,” Moreira said. “It was difficult for us to not continue with Nani and obviously selling Dike we had no choice, it was a great opportunity for him. Replacing them was a challenge, it’s still challenging.”
The crown jewel of their offseason refresh was rising Uruguayan international winger Facundo Torres, who broke into the senior national team by the time he turned 21 and played a regular squad role in his country qualifying for the Qatar 2022 World Cup. Torres has six goals and nine assists in 27 matches, and has come on strong of late with 3g/4a in his last seven appearances.
Austrian international striker Ercan Kara was signed with another DP spot and is up to 9g/2a in 24 appearances (18 starts), joining alongside Torres as the faces of a new-look attack. Kara arrived from Rapid Vienna.
“If you’ve been watching Orlando, you’ve seen the evolution of Facundo,” Muzzi said. “He’s much more free-flowing and confident, he knows the league and the opponents. He knows the flights, the variables.
"I hope we can keep him for a lot longer," Muzzi added of their club-record signing from Penarol. "He’s a player who will definitely be playing for one of the big clubs from Europe one day. But it’s not going to be now. Hopefully we can get a few trophies before he goes.”
When Torres opted to join Orlando this winter, there were numerous European clubs hoping to pluck the talent out of South America as well. Clubs across the Atlantic Ocean continue to monitor Torres and while no official bids were lodged, Orlando fielded a few calls from clubs about Torres at the end of the summer transfer window.
“He’s such a smart player, he’s an all-around player,” Moreira said. “He moves around and finds pockets of space, so he needed to adapt to the game and we needed to adapt to Facundo. I’d say the sky’s the limit, I’m very happy with his performances. He’s got a great character, he’s a great professional. Every place we play away from home, you can see Uruguayan fans singing for him, he’s got his own personal fan clubs. It’s amazing.”
Another key signing from the offseason was Uruguayan defensive midfielder Cesar Araujo. The 21-year-old immediately won a starting spot under head coach Oscar Pareja – nudging out Ecuadorian international Sebastian Mendez (traded to LAFC) and US youth international Andres Perea in the process – and is an integral piece to the lineup this year, starting 25 of the club’s 28 MLS games. He’s viewed as one of the brightest Under 22 talents in MLS.
“He’s ahead of schedule, sure, but we had really high expectations for him,” Muzzi said of Araujo, who joined from Montevideo Wanderers.
With all the changes, all the ups and downs, all twists and turns, Orlando are on the precipice of club history. The club are well aware of what it can mean, whether Wednesday night will be a huge moment of celebration – one that also grants a 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot – or a bitter end to a fun cup run.
“We’ve got normal ‘final anxiety,’” Muzzi said. “I mean, the Open Cup, every game is a final. It feels great. We know it’s there for the taking.”