ORLANDO, FL. — It wasn't how the season was supposed to end.
A historic campaign, filled with records broken and memorable moments was seemingly destined to end with silverware, but instead ended in disappointment and pain after a 2-0 loss to the Columbus Crew.
It was a cruel way for a season that saw Head Coach Oscar Pareja lead the Lions to a single-season team record for points, wins and goal differential while tying the single-season team record for goals scored. Orlando City was also coming off of two 1-0 wins over Nashville SC both home and away in Round One of the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs 18 days prior.
But, as Pareja said after Saturday night, "That's fútbol."
"We have respect for our pain, their pain and also our frustration because we cannot hide it," he said after Saturday's match. "We’ll have better moments to see what we have achieved, but this moment is what it is. That's fútbol and the message is respect, letting (the players) know how proud of them we are and to keep pushing."
It was an emotional end of the game for the Lions faithful, both players and fans. Tears were shed, hugs were shared, and thanks were given all around. As the Crew celebrated on the other side of the stadium after the final whistle, the Lions players stood in a somber state in front of The Wall, listening to them continue to chant and cheer. It was a tough scene to watch, knowing that this could be the final moments for some of these players in purple.
“It’s sad, first and foremost," midfielder Facundo Torres said. "We had a lot of expectations of ourselves this season and in these playoffs. We were a really strong team, but we took a hard hit today. We try to be the least sad that we can possibly be and move forward, but like I said, we took a hard hit today.”
While the end of the season may feel unfulfilled, there is still so much of what this team accomplished this season that has set them up for numerous opportunities for silverware in 2024.
With their second-place finish, they qualified for the Concacaf Champions Cup to begin next year, signifying their second straight season in the tournament. Numerous new players like Rafael Santos, Dagur Dan Thorhallsson, Ramiro Enrique and Duncan McGuire grew up and made a name for themselves in MLS. Robin Jansson had a Defender of the Year-caliber season, Pedro Gallese was nominated for Goalkeeper of the Year and Facundo Torres finished tied for fifth in goals scored in all of MLS.
Along with those accolades, Rodrigo Schlegel, Antonio Carlos, Gallese and captain Mauricio Pereyra all hit club milestones with 100 games played for the Lions.
Now armed with the valuable lessons learned from the setbacks and challenges of 2023, the Lions can begin laying the groundwork for a resurgent 2024.
"Today is the end of this dream," Pereyra said after the game, "but the effort and the way that this dream was made this year was great. I think people will remember this year.”