ORLANDO, Fla. – With an Orlando City SC flag draped over his shoulders, Benji Michel sprinted to “The Wall” in celebration.
The homegrown forward had every reason to soak in the moment. He entered the game in the 61st minute for Ercan Kara, one of the Lions’ three Designated Players, and preceded to notch an assist, drawn penalty kick and stoppage-time goal.
With his family watching, in the city he grew up in, the 24-year-old logged a Man of the Match-caliber performance that not just brought Orlando a 3-0 win over Sacramento Republic FC, a USL Championship side dreaming of upset-minded history.
The result also booked Orlando their first-ever silverware as an MLS club (joined the league in 2015), lifting the 2022 US Open Cup trophy and booking a Concacaf Champions League spot for 2023.
It was a storybook moment, one that brought a sell-out crowd at Exploria Stadium to its feet and singing long into the stop-and-start rainy Wednesday evening.
“It's a good example for the community, our academy, our homegrowns and the introduction of a local guy who came and you saw his family, as you mentioned,” head coach Oscar Pareja said postgame of Michel. “It was fantastic to see him celebrating. This is Orlando.”
HIGHLIGHTS: Orlando City SC vs. Sacramento Republic | September 7, 2022
As sterling as Michel was, Orlando reached another gear through Facundo Torres in the 75th minute onwards. The club-record signing, a full Uruguayan international, had a brace by the 80th minute and then provided an inch-perfect through ball on Michel’s 96th-minute clincher.
The offseason arrival from Penarol is vying for a Qatar 2022 World Cup spot with La Celeste, and has sparked Orlando’s late-season form. He reached another gear late in the second half vs. Sacramento, turning a cagey affair into the celebratory one the Lions expected.
“I think those players that change the game and take their teams on their shoulders are difficult to find,” Pareja said. “In Facu, we have found that already. This one game, he just took that magical moment that he brought us.”
The star showings come amid a new-look offense Orlando’s still figuring out well into their 2022 campaign. Gone are Nani, Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller from the 2021’s core, while Alexandre Pato is out with a knee injury.
Facundo Torres interview
That’s all required different solutions, a process Pareja himself acknowledged earlier this week is still ongoing. But when a trophy was on the line, they found answers – and Torres, especially, delivered.
“We see [Facundo’s] growth into the league, his understanding of the league, his understanding of the physicality and speed required has been amazing,” technical director Ricardo Moreira said of their reported $7.5 million signing (plus bonuses) from Penarol.
“He's a guy where all I have to say is that the sky is the limit. Kudos to the Wilf family, who helped us doing such an investment because I think it's all paying off today, tonight. There's more to come from him and I hope we can stay with Facundo as long as we can.”
Sacramento head coach Mark Briggs layered on the praise for Torres, one of the 2022 MLS offseason’s top signings, a player who’s reportedly on the radar of clubs in Europe’s top-five leagues.
“We made a couple of errors and when you play against world-class players – Torres is going to the World Cup in November,” Briggs said of the 22-year-old. “I think Orlando played $9 million for him. That’s more than the value of our club.”
Don’t lose sight of Michel’s impact, though, a 24-year-old college soccer product who cut his teeth in Orlando’s academy before starting his professional career in 2019.
And the hometown kid celebrated the best way he knew how, jumping into Orlando’s supporters’ section postgame, singing and chanting as the Open Cup trophy was raised on the capo stand.
“Champions, baby!,” Michel exulted on an Instagram live. “Let’s f—ing go.”