Orlando City aren’t the underdog. In most cases, they would be. We’re talking about a team looking for their first trophy. A team that struggled to make the playoffs for years despite the support of an intense and dedicated fan base. They’re looking for their first trophy since joining MLS in 2015 and they’re set to do it in front of a sellout crowd that’s waited for a moment like this for a long time.
All they have to do is ruin the hopes and dreams of anyone who wants to believe in the ability of a ragtag group of athletes few people have ever heard of to band together and accomplish the near-impossible against heavily favored competition. Orlando has to reject Disney.
It’s an odd position to be in but it’s also an opportunity. One they’ve earned. All year Orlando have had an ethos of getting the job done without worrying about aesthetics or circumstances. Oscar Pareja has taken this team from that group working together to accomplish the impossible and failing to a team assured in its feeling that it’s too good to fail. They won back-to-back shootouts on their way to the USOC semifinal. Once they got there, they pummeled a New York Red Bulls side that had done the same to them a few months earlier.
The Lions have taken a season predicated on growth and done just that. They needed to replace multiple key departures coming into 2022. Daryl Dike, Nani and Chris Mueller all left. Ercan Kara, Facundo Torres and Cesar Araujo came in. And while it hasn’t been a steady climb to the top, they’ve shown an increasing ability to compete with the league’s best teams. They’re a win away from a US Open Cup title and are on the verge of earning a home playoff spot in the East. They’re well ahead of schedule.
In the grand scheme of things though, they are generally a David to Goliaths throughout the MLS season. However, for tonight, the Lions have claimed the right to be the big bad. Sacramento Republic FC have done something astonishing here by just making the final. They could be the first second-division team to win the U.S. Open Cup since the 1999 Rochester Rhinos. And they’re a well-drilled and talented group. But the difference in rosters and resources is real. There’s a clear favorite. We know what happens to clear favorites though.
Tonight could be about Orlando’s first trophy and team that pulled itself together in critical moments to make something special happen. But first, they have to overcome the script. That’s a tough task. Orlando and its fans won’t care how it happens though. And who it happens against. As long as the story ends with them looking at their reflection in a shiny new trophy.