Orlando City

New challenge: Lions prepare to open Leagues Cup play against Houston

ORLANDO, Fla. — Friday night will mark the beginning of the fourth tournament that Orlando City will participate in this season.

After the Champions League, US Open Cup, and MLS, the Leagues Cup takes center stage as the league pauses in the regular season to play out the monthlong tournament. Like any other competition for head coach Oscar Pareja and his team, it’s another opportunity to win a trophy and qualify for next year’s Concacaf Champions Cup.

“The importance of the [Leagues Cup] tournament is big for us,” said Pareja on Thursday. “It’s a tournament that we are going to face with a lot of responsibility and the understanding that it offers an opportunity to get back into an international competition. Orlando wants to be on the map of contenders in the region that can fight for trophies.”

The first of the two matches the Lions will play in the group stage will see them face the Houston Dynamo at Exploria Stadium (8:00 p.m. kickoff | MLS Season Pass on Apple TV (subscription required), a team that Orlando played just last year at home. This time, the Dynamo are a different-looking team under new head coach Ben Olsen, sitting in playoff position in the Western Conference.  

“I think Ben has brought a different style of playing to that group,” Pareja said. “I have followed them despite them not being in the conference, and seeing that style of play that Ben is providing to that group I think has been a success so far with very good players and a lot of respect. We need to be on our toes, control the game, and be very competitive, to match the intensity that they bring to the game. It certainly is going to be a good match.”

In the buildup to the Friday match, the Lions announced that fan-favorite midfielder Junior Urso would be making his return to the club, signing through the end of the season. The Brazilian, who spent three seasons in Orlando and made 100 appearances, will be a big boost for the depth of the squad in the midfield and as a leader in the locker room.

“We’re very glad to have him, a player who’s going to bring a lot of versatility to a team, a player that we know already, a player who belongs to this family,” Pareja added. “Players are very happy to have him back after he resolved all the difficulties with his family.”

Urso spent the last six months back in Brazil after leaving the club at the end of the 2022 season. Now, the Bear returns to the Lions to help push them through the rest of the year. 

“There’s a lot of emotion in my heart, but I’m really happy,” Urso said. “That’s the truth. I have to be honest with everyone. I was in Brazil and I was thinking about this moment, this opportunity. So thank you to my Lord Jesus for the opportunity and also to the Club, for opening the door again for me. I hope we can do the same as last year and have the same happy moments.”

Odds and ends

  • Defender Abdi Salim, who has missed the last two months due to injury, is back training with the team as of this week. He will be available for selection during all Leagues Cup matches. 
  • Orlando City B midfielder Juninho, who made his first-team debut in New England back in June, is also on the Leagues Cup roster, having impressed the coaching staff with his play for the MLS Next Pro side.

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