Exploria Stadium always has of the loudest and rowdiest atmospheres in Major League Soccer, but there’s something particularly special about Opening Day in Central Florida. Orlando City have opened their league campaigns at home every season they’ve been in the league, and are set to do so again in 2020 on February 29 against Real Salt Lake at 6 pm. The Wall has already sold out for the game more than a week in advance.
The Lions have gone five seasons of home openers without ever incurring a loss, often avoiding the jaws of defeat in spectacularly dramatic fashion. We have ranked each of Orlando City’s five Opening Day games from least to most heart-stopping, though “least” here is very relative.
No. 5: 2017 vs. New York City FC
It might seem bizarre to rank the one victory among Orlando City’s home openers in the No. 5 position, but hear us out. Orlando’s 1-0 win over rival NYCFC had no goals in the second half and, despite some close calls from the New York side down the stretch, saw out the three points without a ton of late drama.
The Lions instead came early with the dramatics, as captain Kaká had to leave the game in the 11th minute with a hamstring injury, only to see replacement Giles Barnes assist Cyle Larin’s winner just four minutes into his Orlando debut. The game also had the distinction of being Orlando City’s first-ever game in Exploria Stadium, kicking off a run of five straight victories to open the new fortress.
No. 4: 2018 vs. DC United
This is sort of the forgotten game among the bunch, but it holds a soft spot for us. City came into the game with many of their major offseason additions unavailable due to injury or fitness problems. The game itself started with a double gut punch, as DC winger Yamil Asad scored in the 32nd minute and Orlando City left back PC was sent off soon after, lowering the Lions to 10 men for the entire second half.
Orlando went on to deliver one of their gutsiest performances in club history, dominating the game despite DC’s man advantage. All of their hard work paid off in the night’s waning moments, as debutant Stéfano Pinho slotted home the equalizer in the 93rd minute, sending a packed Exploria Stadium into an ecstatic frenzy.
No. 3: 2019 vs. New York City FC
The most recent home opener places third on our list. Orlando, facing New York City for the third time in five Opening Day games, trotted out an aggressive 3-5-2 formation and quickly went down 2-0 thanks to a wondergoal from Ebenezer Ofori and a slick strike from NYC captain Alex Ring. The Lions grabbed one back on a Chris Mueller free kick early in the second half...and then the big guns took the field.
Neither Dom Dwyer, slowed by a preseason quad injury, nor new superstar DP Nani, coming off a brief rest after his February transfer from Sporting CP, were fit to start for Orlando City. They both entered the game in a double substitution in the 70th minute and didn’t wait long to make an impact. In the 75th minute, Nani took the ball at the halfway line and played a beauty ahead to Dwyer, who picked it up near the endline and sent a square ball into the box for a surging Tesho Akindele, who slammed it into the back of the net to tie the game.
No. 2: 2015 vs. New York City FC
2015 is advantaged first and foremost by being the first MLS game in Orlando City history. 62,510 fans packed the then-Citrus Bowl to see the Lions take the field in the top flight for the very first time, and they were treated to a spectacle they wouldn’t soon forget.
After a tense opening hour, NYCFC, also debuting in MLS in a battle of expansion sides, struck first through Mix Diskerud in the 76th minute. It looked like Orlando City would begin their MLS story with a home loss. Then, the captain:
A curl, a bounce, a freeze–fate seemingly guided Kaká’s free kick literally through the NYCFC defense and into the back of the net. The captain’s iconic celebration embodied everything Orlando City was and is about to this day.
No. 1: 2016 vs. Real Salt Lake
And yet, somehow, 2015 isn’t in the top slot. That goes to the following year’s game, against 2020 home opener opponent Real Salt Lake.
The contest is remembered for the ending–we’ll get to that in a minute–but the whole game was wild. RSL’s Demar Phillips was sent off with two yellows in the first 20 minutes, Joao Plata put the Claret-and-Cobalt in the lead with a penalty kick just six minutes after that, Orlando’s Darwin Ceren drew a red card to make it 10-on-10 just before half, and Plata hit a brace in the 66th minute to make it 2-0 RSL. Deep into stoppage time, Orlando City seemed without hope.
It was Larin who first gave Orlando hope. With under a minute until the final whistle, Brek Shea put one on a platter for the second-year striker, who neatly deposited the ball past RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando to make it 2-1. But with virtually no time remaining, Larin’s goal seemed nothing but a nice consolation prize.
It’s safe to say Adrian Winter did not agree:
After rushing to the center circle and winning the ball back off the kickoff, Servando Carrasco’s majestic long ball somehow, through Larin’s awareness and some inexplicable serendipity, found the feet of Winter. The Swiss forward continued his run and smashed home the equalizer, causing all inside Camping World Stadium to erupt in sheer madness (at least all but the RSL players, who dropped to the floor in stunned silence). There would not be another kick in the game.
Do you agree with our list? Which home opener is your favorite?