Benji Michel of Orlando City celebrates after scoring a goal against the New England Revolution in a Round of 16 match in the 2019 US Open Cup. Photo: Orlando City SC
Orlando City SC and the New England Revolution, both struggling teams from Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, met at Exploria Stadium in Orlando Wednesday night, with each club fielding strong starting elevens. It was a signal that each side hoped to use a deep Lamar Hunt US Open Cup run to wash away the sting of disappointing seasons in MLS. The game was the first game played in Orlando under the name Exploria Stadium, formerly known as Orlando City Stadium.
In the end, Orlando City vanquished Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution 2-1 in extra time on goals from rookie Benji Michel and Canadian international Tesho Akindele.
“It was an outstanding effort,” Orlando City head coach James O’Connor said after the win. “We can be immensely proud of all the players, and I think our fans will certainly appreciate the level of fight and commitment from all the players. It’s fantastic to get through and have the opportunity to play at home [in the Quarterfinals] and play for something bigger.”
For the first ninety minutes, the game was largely a listless stalemate.
“I thought both teams did a great job of canceling each other out for much of the game,” O’Connor said.
Certainly, both clubs tried to seize the early initiative, with the best attacking moments of an otherwise choppy, stolid first half coming in the game’s first ten minutes.
First, New England had a marvelous chance three minutes in when Teal Bunbury latched onto a pass from Carles Gil in space, only to push a decent effort just wide of the right post.
Minutes later, it was the hosts turn, with a clever late run from Cristian Higuita onto a probing ball from Tesho Akindele forcing New England goalkeeper Matt Turner into a nice save.
Support TheCup.us and its coverage of the US Open Cup by purchasing a “We Want The Cup” shirt in your team’s colors. Visit THECUP.US SHOP
The game tightened after those early chances, with the clubs looking very much the part of teams that had enjoyed a Gold Cup weekend away. Orlando City did control tempo and flow, but failed to produce quality first-half chances despite the lion’s share of possession. The purple and gold’s best chance likely came in the 37th minute, when Santiago Patiño, who was active throughout, sailed an unmarked volley high and wide off a corner kick in the 37th minute.
Beyond that, the only truly memorable moment in the opening 45 came when longtime Lion Cristian Higuita left the game in tears with what appeared to be a serious injury. Higuita was met with a roaring ovation and hugs from teammates, a sign of the respect he’s earned in Orlando and a sign of what his presence means in the locker room.
In the second half, it was the visiting Revolution who seized control early. Five minutes into the half, Carles Gil played a slicing ball to the speedy Cristian Penilla in space but the diminutive winger’s shot went harmlessly wide of the target, despite little pressure from a late closing Lamine Sané.
Ten minutes later, the Revolution again nearly found the breakthrough, after a darting run by Juan Agudelo again freed Penilla up in space. Only a spectacular, lunging challenge from Orlando City’s Dillion Powers kept the Ecuadorian from putting the visitors out in front.
Minutes later, Penilla would miss an even better chance for New England, whiffing on a sitter from three yards with the Brazilian defender Ruan hopelessly a step behind.
In a sign of what the game meant to both teams, each manager turned to offensive firepower off the bench after the hour mark. First, O’Connor brought on Portuguse superstar Nani in the 65th minute, replacing Patino. Arena countered with Colombian Juan Caicedo minutes later, for Pinella.
It was Caicedo who made the larger impact, at least initially. First, his flick onto Teal Bunbury forced a great save by Lions keeper Adam Grinwis on a backheel in the 74th minute. Minutes later, Caicedo fired brilliantly from distance, beating Grinwis, only to be cruelly turned away by the woodwork. The woodwork deflection fell towards Bunbury, who was in a great position, but the former Hermann Trophy winner’s rebound was mishit wide, leaving Orlando City to fight on with the game level.
Orlando City would have golden chances of their own late.
In the 86th minute, Tesho Akindele made a slalom run through the channel and fired off a powerful strike that beat Turner, only to hit the post, with the woodwork unkind. Dillon Powers fired a shot across his body minutes after that, with Matt Turner making a strong, lunging save to keep the game level. The game headed to extra time moments later.
Early in extra time, the hosts finally made the breakthrough.
Orlando City and the New England Revolution square off in a Round of 16 match in the 2019 US Open Cup at the newly-renamed Exploria Stadium in Orlando. Photo: Neil Blackmon
João Moutinho’s overlapping run led to a low cross whipped in a cross from the left flank, which fell to midfielder Carlos Ascues. The first shot was parried away by Turner, but fell back towards Benji Michel, who had come on for Chris Mueller in the 81st minute.
Michel, a 21-year-old MLS homegrown player who grew up in the Orlando area, tapped home, scoring an immense goal for Orlando City- and his first professional goal in the process.
For Michel, it was a dream come true.
“To score my first professional goal, for my hometown club, in front of these fans, was an amazing feeling,” Michel said. “You dream about your first professional goal but to do it in that moment, it’s incredible.”
O’Connor was thrilled with the performance of the homegrown talent, and not just in attack.
“(Michel) scored the goal, and that showed fantastic composure. But what I was pleased with was he tracked back late in the game and made a fantastic tackle and interception in our penalty area,” O’Connor said. “It’s easy to be complacent when you score a goal, but Benji didn’t do that. He tracked back and made a play that impacts winning that you don’t often see in a young player.”
The Lions would add to their lead only five minutes later. With New England pressing for an equalizer, Orlando City won a fifty-fifty ball in midfield and pressed forward on the counter, with Sacha Kljestan winning a free kick on the left. On the restart, Tesho Akindele took a touch near the top of the box and, dribbling into the area, clipped an effort towards goal. While Akindele didn’t get much on the shot, it took a wicked deflection and trickled past an off-balance Matt Turner’s near post anyway, providing the Lions with a 2-0 lead.
As it turned out, Orlando City would need the insurance.
Late in the second extra time period, Carles Gil, dangerous all night, made a darting run down the flank and crossed to another MLS homegrown product, the late running Justin Rennicks. Rennicks, fresh off a terrific Under-20 World Cup for the United States, greeted the cross with a clinical header and scored his first professional goal to cut Orlando City’s lead to one.
New England would almost equalize twice in stoppage time.
First, Diego Fagundez whipped in a cross and Caicedo beat his defender to the spot, only to see his header glance just wide of an outstretched Grinwis. Then, in the dying moments of the game, with New England hurling bodies forward following a last gasp corner and with chaos in the box, Orlando City defender Sané somehow managed to see- and deflect- a low, driven effort from Caicedo that would have surely sent proceedings to penalties.
The victory assures that Orlando City will host a quarterfinal against their expansion brother NYCFC at Exploria Stadium on July 10, and with that opportunity, the Lions will have the chance to advance further in the Open Cup than the club has in its history. This will be the second year in a row that Orlando as reached the Rough of Eight, and the fourth time in club history.
For Orlando City, the sense is that this year might be the year for a semifinals breakthrough and perhaps, even more.
“We showed a lot of character in this game,” Grinwis said after the game. “(O’Connor) arrived for preseason and he insisted and we wanted to flip the script about the expectations around here, to give something to the fans. We showed it today, that this team has great character and togetherness and the connection this year is special and different.”