Despite their poor form and the negative sentiment surrounding the club right now, Orlando City is more motivated than ever heading into tonight with a cup final berth on the line as the Lions host the New York Red Bulls in the U.S. Open Cup semi-finals at Exploria Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).
In the semi-finals of the tournament for the second time in club history (2019 being the last trip), Orlando City is seeking to reach its first cup final since 2020, when the Lions made history in advancing to the MLS Is Back Tournament final against the Portland Timbers — or if you’re looking for something a little more formal, you’d have to go back all the way to 2013 when Orlando hosted and won the 2013 USL Pro championship, the last trophy won by the club.
Should they advance, Orlando would host the final in early September against either Sacramento Republic or Sporting KC.
“We are very excited, preparing for the game and the semifinal,” said head coach Oscar Pareja this week. “This is a great opportunity for the Club to advance to another final. The players are excited as well and have been working hard trying to focus on the competition. We are excited.”
The Lions and Red Bulls have met just once so far this season, ending in a match that Orlando was quickly looking to forget, as New York came into Exploria Stadium and wiped the floor in a 3-0 victory, one of Orlando’s league-leading six home losses in MLS play this season. In the Open Cup, the Lions have seen much better fortunes, beating both Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC at home en route to this semi-finals berth — both of those matches also ending in penalty shootouts.
Tonight’s match offers Orlando a chance to re-write the narrative of the club’s struggles this summer. Despite just one loss in their last four games, the Lions have had no easy time scoring goals over the last two months, with just 11 goals in their last nine games — and no more than one in each of the last four.
In those last four games, Pareja’s group hasn’t achieved an xG number above 1.00, combining for a total of roughly 2.4 xG in that run. Their challenge tonight is straightforward, but executing with be no easy task.
“The message for the players is very clear all of the time. I think their professionalism is remarkable,” Pareja said of trying to rally players as a difficult run of form lately. “After having many games in a very short period of time, the optimism and the preparation has been at the best for them. … We’re here for a reason, and we have to try to accomplish that with the players.”
The Red Bulls have been lighting up the league themselves lately either, but they’re entering the week 3rd in the Eastern Conference with a 3-1-1 record in their last five games.
Given how things went the last time these two sides met, Pareja knows it won’t be any easier this time around.
“It’s not a secret that in the last game that we played against them we had a lot of problems trying to get out of the pressing, and it was difficult for us to create some clean sequences to provide us opportunities to score goals,” Pareja said.
He expects no difference in game plan from New York and knows his team will need to be sharper to execute and get around the press that makes the Red Bulls so successful.
New York has been one of the best road teams in MLS this season. With a 7-3-2 record on the road, their 20 goals away from Red Bull Arena are also tied for the most in the league.