Orlando City SC's emphatic 5-1 victory over the New York Red Bulls in the US Open Cup semifinals on Wednesday didn't start off like a match that would eventually end in a blowout result.
The midweek fixture at Exploria Stadium was evenly contested through the opening 45 minutes, and the Eastern Conference sides swapped goals in stoppage time of an end-to-end first half. An opening golazo from Lewis Morgan and two separate shots off the woodwork from Patryk Klimala had the visitors looking plenty capable of scoring a road upset, despite conceding an equalizer to Orlando's Cesar Araujo just before the intermission.
Instead, Orlando erupted for arguably the most dominant display in the club's MLS history, hanging four more goals past goalkeeper Carlos Coronel while keeping RBNY under siege for virtually the entire second half. Their reward is a spot in their first-ever USOC final, which they'll host at Exploria Stadium on Sept. 7 against USL Championship side Sacramento Republic FC.
"The importance of the game, it goes beyond taking the club to another final, which is already super for our fans and what the achievement means for the city," Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja said postgame.
Dominant second half
The second-half fireworks showed what Orlando are capable of at their top form, Pareja said, as they chase a third-straight Audi MLS Cup Playoffs trip. The Lions are currently fifth in the East standings heading into Week 23, but have struggled to find consistency with an 8W-8L-6D record and negative-5 goal differential.
Now, just over two months out from Decision Day (Oct. 9), they'll have an opportunity to bag the club's first piece of silverware on their home field since entering MLS as an expansion club in 2015.
"The team showed that we have talent and cohesiveness among the players," Pareja said. "It's just trying to get that consistency and it's a long season. Congratulations to the players and congratulations to the fans for taking our club to another final and showing we can be much better in our performance in the league games. We will keep working on it."
The Lions were powered by Araujo's brace, the Uruguayan U22 Initiative midfielder's first goals since arriving in the offseason. Mauricio Pereyra's strike just after halftime got the momentum fully turned, then tallies from Facundo Torres and Benji Michel in the final quarter hour put matters well out of reach.
"It was proof we can reach that potential and we will have that as a moment to keep ascending with this team," Pareja said. "We'll keep working. We want to see more of these moments. Our fans deserve it."
RBNY: Missed opportunity
For the visitors, head coach Gerhard Struber said his side lacked the resilience that has RBNY challenging near the top of the East table. New York sit third and are tied with Austin FC for the best road record in MLS.
US men's national team center back Aaron Long echoed that sentiment with a forward-looking lens for a club that's made 12 straight playoff trips.
"It’s disappointing," Long said. "It’s something that we definitely put our hearts into and we could taste it coming into the semifinals, we’re so close now. I think we just got to take it as a learning experience in these win-or-go-home games when the playoffs come."
Despite their strong start at Orlando, Struber stressed nothing is given. RBNY were looking to make their third Open Cup final after trips to the 2003 and 2017 championship games.
"A final is not a gift," the Austrian manager said. "You have to fight for that and you have to give more than what we do in the second half. We cannot change that. This is right now the reality and this is [very] painful.
Orlando have made one previous final during their MLS era, losing to the Portland Timbers when the MLS is Back Tournament title was on the line in 2020. Now, a memorable rain-soaked evening in Central Florida has them dreaming of going one step further – possibly raising silverware and getting a 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot in the process.
"Tonight we want to enjoy this great moment for our fans and for our club," Pareja remarked. "Taking the club to a second final, hopefully we can give them this trophy. Today is a fantastic night because it shows us the potential of this team is good."
HIGHLIGHTS: Orlando City SC vs. New York Red Bulls | July 27, 2022