ORLANDO, Fla. — No. Not again. Not another loss to … them.
Anybody but … them!
Another day, another defeat to the franchise that has this irritating, er, devastating way of turning Orlando City into Orlando Pity. Atlanta United 2, Orlando Slighted 0.
This match Tuesday night was billed as the biggest in Orlando City history, which was both a good thing and a bad thing.
It was a bad thing because this semifinal game against rival Atlanta United in the U.S. Open Cup meant that Orlando City hasn’t really had any big playoff moments in its disappointing five seasons as a Major League Soccer franchise.
It was a good thing because there was the hope that maybe, just maybe, this tournament could be the genesis of something bigger and better for Orlando City. Maybe, just maybe, winning this century-old competition somehow would flip a switch and become a catalyst and a symbol that the next five years for Orlando City will be better than the last five years.
But it wasn’t to be.
Sadly, it never is against Atlanta — a franchise that has blown by Orlando City and dominated the Lions ever since the Five Stripes joined the league three seasons ago.
The shame is that this match was so much more important to Orlando City than it was to Atlanta — the reigning MLS champions who have become the league’s model franchise. Beating Orlando and being one victory from another trophy is no big deal for Atlanta. Playing at home and desperate for a franchise-defining victory, this match and this tournament was a chance for Orlando City to win something — anything — for its success-starved fans.
No, this wasn’t a playoff game, but it sure felt like one. Most sports fans don’t quite get what this tournament meant to Orlando City. You see, most traditional American sports fans are so consumed by the playoffs and winning league and national championships that nothing else matters. Which is why college bowl games and the NIT have been minimized to a point of near-irrelevance over the years.
Football, baseball and basketball fans don’t quite grasp competing in ancillary tournaments while their regular season is still going on. Could you imagine the Magic being in the thick of an NBA playoff race and taking a midweek break to play the G League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants in an auxiliary tournament?
In soccer, it’s different. This is a sport where clubs and fans covet and celebrate any trophy like it’s the World Cup. It’s actually pretty cool. Even if your team doesn’t win the official league championship, you still can put a trophy in your trophy case and call yourself the champion of something.
And the U.S. Open is about as big as it gets. The 84-team tournament has been going on for 106 years and is the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the U.S. The tournament winner qualifies for the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.
And, of course, this match was even bigger, much bigger, because of who Orlando City played Tuesday night. Let’s not kid ourselves, Orlando City — its team, its fans and its management — has a chronic case of Hot Lanta envy.
Atlanta United is everything Orlando City hoped it would be when it entered the league a half-decade ago — a smashing box-office success, an instant playoff contender and an MLS Cup champion in only its second year of existence.
And to make matters worse, the Five Stripes have accomplished all of this at Orlando City’s expense. In Atlanta’s three seasons in the league, the Lions have played the Five Stripes eight times now and never won (0-6-2). When this fact was brought up to Orlando City coach James O’Connor after the match Tuesday, he snapped, “”Obviously, I could care less about our (past) record. I’ve had to listen to all this crap. … I’m not interested in any of that.”
Translation: Orlando City’s dislike for Atlanta grows tenfold after every defeat. The loathing for Atlanta United was even on international display during the MLS All-Star Game last week at Exploria Stadium, when boos rained down from the stands every time an Atlanta player touched the ball.
That’s why this match was so huge for Orlando City. That’s why Orlando City’s supporter groups unveiled a giant tifo before the game with Uma Thurman’s famous line from “Kill Bill:” “You And I Have Unfinished Business.”
Actually, Atlanta had no unfinished business; only Orlando City did. And it’s about time the Lions started cashing some checks that are five years overdue.
Instead, the U.S. Open Cup is now Atlanta’s for the taking.
Just like everything else.
The Five Stripes have come into the league and taken everything that was supposed to be Orlando City’s.
“It sucks,” Orlando City’s Sacha Kljestan said. “Everybody feels devastated and sad.”