Since making the move from the United Soccer League to Major League Soccer in 2015, the Lions have been in one tournament final — which came under Pareja — and came up empty.
That could change when Orlando City takes on Sacramento Republic FC in the U.S. Open Cup final tonight at Exploria Stadium.
“This is what we came here for,” Pareja, who’s been Orlando City’s coach since December 2019, said in a team-released video about the final. “Orlando needs to be in the finals. The fans deserve it.”
The Republic, a USL Championship club, is looking to become the first non-MLS team to win the tournament since 1999.
Orlando City, which has hosted all five of their previous Open Cup matches, clinched its spot in the final with a 5-1 win over the New York Red Bulls in the semifinals on July 27.
The Lions beat fellow MLS clubs Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF in penalty shootouts to advance in the previous two rounds. They opened the tournament with wins over the Tampa Bay Rowdies on April 20 and Philadelphia Union on May 10.
Tonight will be the Lions’ first time in a tournament’s final since falling to the Portland Timbers 2-1 in the MLS is Back Tournament in the summer of 2020.
“Orlando needs much more than be in the finals,” said Pareja, who was the coach of the FC Dallas team that won the Open Cup championship in 2016. “Orlando City needs to win it, and we’re going to fight for that.”
There’s more at stake than the $300,000 prize. Or the accomplishment of winning its first trophy in its MLS era.
Also on the line is a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League — an annual continental club tournament in which the Lions have yet to qualify.
Sentinel Sports Final
Every morning, get the late sports scores and stories from the night before.
The Seattle Sounders became the first MLS club to win the CONCACAF Champions League last year.
“It’s massive,” Orlando City chief marketing officer Pedro Araujo said about the importance of the U.S. Open Cup during an appearance on FM 96.9 The Game’s Open Mike with the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi. “It’s the oldest soccer competition in America. Also, you get a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, which is the premier tournament across Central and North America.”
The Lions enter riding a four-game winning streak in MLS competition.
Midfielder Facundo Torres (6 goals and 9 assists in MLS play) and forward Ercan Kara (9 goals, 2 assists) will be tasked with leading Orlando City’s attack against a Sacramento defense that has been stout throughout the tournament, allowing just 2 goals in six games.
The match is sold out. It’ll be streamed live on ESPN+.
“It speaks to the passion of our fans and the passion of our fans for our city,” Araujo said. “To have that building full to support Orlando City will be a special night. Hopefully, we can deliver.”