Many are calling Wednesday night's US Open Cup semifinal against the New York Red Bulls the biggest game in Orlando City history, and while that may be true, there are certainly contenders for that crown most notably the only other Open Cup semifinal in club history.
On August 6, 2019, Orlando City hosted its first ever Cup semifinal and it was a massive opportunity for a club on the rise. We were still undergoing the failed James O'Connor experiment, but new GM Luiz Muzzi had already brought in pieces that would help elevate the club to its new standard including Robin Jansson.
While the regular season had been disappointing, this was a real chance to play for real silverware. And it just had to come against the evil empire to the north: Atlanta United.
2019 was a bizarre year for Atlanta United as well (hi Pity Martinez), but that's a story for another time. For all their quirks, though, the Five Stripes were still one of the best teams in MLS. I was fortunate enough to actually go to this match, and it among the best vibes inside of Exploria Stadium to date.
Even as a cup semifinal, this was still a midweek game with limited marketing efforts, meaning ~70% of the stadium was mostly empty. The remaining 30%? A packed out, electricity factory on the wall. Orlando supporters have a mixed reputation, but the energy the supporters brought that night was next level. The entire wall was packed, loud and fiery. Before the match they unveiled a legendary tifo.
The heckling in the game was unbelievable in the best possible way. Anytime Atlanta United did anything, the boos were deafening. Brad Guzan faced the brunt of it with some of the loudest and most pointed YSA chants in Exploria history. When Atlanta brought in Justin Meran, who'd recently joined the Five Stripes after an awful stint in Orlando, the heckling got so bad I started to feel bad about it. It got really nasty in a way only a big rivalry game on a huge stage can be.
The game itself was something. Orlando just didn't have the horses to compete with Atlanta. I knew it, my friends at the game knew it and I'm sure the teams knew it. That Atlanta team wasn't historically great or anything, but it was a damn good squad and Orlando just wasn't near that level in 2019.
That's way too harsh judging by how the match played out, as Orlando had several quality scoring chances courtesy of Dom Dwyer, but the lack of quality to put away the chances made the difference in the end.
Wednesday night against the Red Bulls won't have the same bite as the 2019 match with Atlanta, that level of vitriol is saved for just them, but hopefully the fanbase and city will recognize the magnitude of the match and provide the big game atmosphere to elevate the Lions into their first proper cup final.