2020 Season in Review. One to Remember...
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
The 2020 US Soccer season has certainly been one to remember for a number of reasons. It's been a dystopia of adversity. When the Coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe, its impact on the global sporting landscape was unprecedented. The whole of the sporting world had to adapt to this 'new normal'. Campaign suspensions, bubbles, lockdowns, lockouts. Locked everything. It's been pure, unadulterated chaos. And weirdly, I've loved every minute of covering. It's been a unique experience. Despite all of the challenges Orlando City has had to overcome, it's been a resounding success of a season.
Home opener and defeat in Colorado
The excitement levels heading into the 2020 season was palpable for Orlando City. Following on from the disappointment of the 2019 season, new head coach Oscar Pareja had the unenviable task of ending this club's play-off hoodoo. Real Salt Lake were first up at Exploria Stadium. Whilst the game ended goalless, it was clear for all to see that something special was building. Orlando dictated the pace of the game, and at times popped the ball around as those this were a mildly entertaining training game. Whilst the Lions were unable to find a breakthrough on that occasion (they did everything but) the majority of the near capacity crowd left with a tangible sense of what was to come.
The Lions followed this result up with a defeat in Colorado as a last gasp header from Drew Moor gave the Rapids victory. Despite the bitter taste of defeat, Orlando City supporters saw enough to suggest that a play-off berth was a realistic target for this club. The Lions found themselves behind early in the second half courtesy of a wonder strike from Younes Namli, before deservedly hauling themselves back into the contest via Chris Mueller's first of a stellar season. Moor's late winner was a bitter pill to swallow for Oscar Pareja's men. Little did the team know, they'd have a quite a while to reflect on this defeat...
Pre-season training for the Pride
The Pride returned to Orlando for pre-season training, with the air of renewed optimism as clear and present as Central Florida's early spring warmth. The 2019 NWSL season was nothing short of a disaster for Marc Skinner's team, which was reflected in some seriously impressive off-season transfer activity. The likes of Ali Riley, Emily Sonnett and Jade Moore joined an already star-studded roster.
The sense of optimism would be incredibly short-lived. The pandemic brought the Pride's pre-season preparations to an incredibly pre-mature end. No sooner were the Pride's new additions suited and booted were they, again, booted. It would be a long and arduous 6 months before the Pride geared up for competitive action again. But, more on that later.
Marc Skinner bolstered the Pride's roster significantly, during the off-season. Covid-19 outbreak! NWSL and MLS seasons suspended
I mean, the less said about this the better. Coronavirus swept the globe, and the international sporting landscape was changed dramatically. Sports leagues the world over ground to a halt as world leaders struggled to grapple with the greatest international health crisis of our time.
It was a dark time for all of us, and it still is. Those first few months back in the Spring were a real challenge for us all. The spirit of human kindness really shone through, at times. Many sporting clubs and icons were putting out wholesome content to keep everyone's spirits up. Orlando City and Orlando Pride were chief among them. Everything from group work-outs to cooking classes were put out by the club on social media. Let's just remind ourselves of some of that content:
I never thought the most we'd see of Ali Riley would be on a cooking show. But, hey. It's 2020.
MLS Is Back tournament
I don't think I've ever been so excited about football in my life. It was a long and torturous few months without the sport I love most. Sentiments that I'm sure will be echoed by all of you. Orlando City opened the tournament in spectacular fashion with an inaugural victory over Inter Fort Lauderdale. A comprehensive win over NYCFC followed prior to a draw with, eventual Supporters Shield winners, the Philadelphia Union. Thierry Henry's Montreal Impact were dispatched before an epic clash with Bob Bradley's LAFC.
The Californian upstarts led, heading into the dying embers of the game. The LAFC flame was shining brightly, until Joao Moutinho stomped all over it until there was nothing left but dust and the ashes of a dream that never got off the ground. Orlando City would triumph in an enthralling penalty shoot-out, that wouldn't even come close to being their most gripping one of the year. Adrian Heath and Minnesota United awaited in the semi-finals. An encounter laced with sub-plots. Inchy, returning to Orlando; to a complex (ESPN Wide World of Sports) that held so many fond memories for he and Kevin Molino.
It was to be Orlando's night. Goals from Luis Nani and Benji Michel put Minnesota to the sword. The Lions defeated the Loons to set up a final against Portland. The Timbers had the last laugh, taking the game (and the CONCACAF Champions League spot) with a deserved victory. Orlando left with something tangible, however. The respect of MLS pundits and competitors alike. This team was a force to be reckoned with. The injury to Dom Dwyer was, at the time, seen as a huge blow. It would be a short lived problem, however.
Resumption of the regular season for Oscar Pareja's men and the rise of Daryl Dike
Defeat in the MLS Is Back final was certainly a tumultuous end to such a promising tournament for this team. The chance to bag a major piece of silverware and a Champions League spot passed them by. There was always going to be a certain amount of comeback from that. A lacklustre performance in the team's 3-2 defeat to Fort Lauderdale put fuel to the fire as alarm bells started to ring. Any concerns being expressed by the supporters were soon put to bed. A 12 game unbeaten streak started with a 3-1 victory over Nashville SC. Daryl Dike, having bagged against Fort Lauderdale a few days earlier, scored twice in what turned out to be a comfortable win.
Dike's stock continued to rise in the coming weeks and months. The first year rookie plundered 8 goals and laid on 4 assists, as he ended the season with USMNT recognition. His all round play earned league-wide plaudits; it's hard to imagine he won't be Orlando City's starting striker next season.
NWSL Challenge Cup for the Pride... And then not.
The NWSL announced its own 'bubble style' tournament in the shape of the Challenge Cup. The plan was for all 9 NWSL teams to quarantine in Utah, whilst taking part in a World Cup style tournament akin to the MLS version. The long and the short of it, however, is this. The Pride never made it to Utah. After a slightly controversial roster announcement, in which the likes of Marisa Viggiano were benched, the Pride withdrew from the tournament due to an outbreak of Covid-19. After two rounds of testing the decision was made to withdraw from the tournament.
There was, seemingly, division among the team and supporter base about how this could have happened. Particularly after a concerning report pertaining a team night-out emerged. Several Pride stars, and supporters took to social media to voice their dissent after the reports emerged. The report seemed to imply a team night-out was the source of the outbreak. Speculation intensified over the following days and weeks. Whilst these reports have never been confirmed, the release of promising youngster Erin Greening seemed to fan the flames somewhat.
Regardless of what did or didn't happen, this was a bitterly disappointing blow for a team that looked set to challenge for hardware in Utah. As it happened, the Pride wouldn't take to the field for another few months. Of course, when they finally did the roster would look ever so slightly different...
Schooling Atlanta in their own backyard
Whilst the Pride were licking their wounds, Oscar Pareja's Orlando City went from strength-to-strength. A comprehensive victory over the Plastics at the NFL Arena they sometimes play in got that particular monkey off their backs. In fact, the monkey was thrown so hard from their shoulders the match was reported to PETA; such was the emphatic nature of their victory. Goals from Urso, Mueller and Nani secured a memorable win for the Lions.
And just because I'm so nice... Here are the goals to warm your insides this winter. Don't say I never do anything for ya.
Florida is purple... again.
I mean, let's be honest... It always will be. They may have won last time-out (we won't dwell on that), but Orlando triumphed in another thrilling Florida derby. A goal from Mauricio Pereyra cancelled out Brek Shea's goal, as the former Lion eradicated Andres Reyes' own-goal. A series of victories over Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale served to underline City's status as genuine MLS Cup play-off contenders.
NWSL Fall Series
The Orlando Pride, after 342 days, finally laced up their boots to take on the North Carolina Courage in their opening match of the NWSL Fall Series. The Pride battled to a very encouraging 0-0 draw; a game they were perhaps unfortunate not to win. Successive defeats to Challenge Cup winners, the Houston Dash, followed before a breath taking 3-3 comeback draw with the Courage. And all that without the majority of their biggest stars.
The Pride might have been winless during the series, but there was still plenty to be positive about. The likes of Carrie Lawrence and Brittany Wilson really acquitted themselves well. The tournament was hugely beneficial to help Marc Skinner strengthen his knowledge of local talent, as a number of non-roster invitees took to the field. The Pride have a number of players currently plying their trade in Europe. Assuming most of those players return (we know Alanna Kennedy won't), combined with the Pride's youngsters... The 2021 season could be a promising one for this team.
Hammering Atlanta... Again!
This never gets old does it? Roll the clip!
MLS Cup play-offs
The season may not have had the glittering end we all hoped it might do, but there was so much to be positive about. Until this season Orlando City were play-off virgins, and so reaching the semi-finals in single elimination is no easy-feet. Especially, when you consider the amount of football that has been played in such a short space of time.
The Lion's disappointing Decision Day defeat to Nashville ultimately meant they would face off against Ronny Deila's NYCFC in the quarters. This was, by some considerable distance, the most bats*it crazy match I have ever seen. And I've been following football for over 20 years. It had everything. Drama, goals and downright insanity. And that was before the shoot-out began!
This game encapsulated so much about this team, and genuinely gives me so much hope for next season. A season that will hopefully be a little more... Well, normal. After Ruan's sending off, I think we all feared the worst. I expected NYCFC to pick us apart, but they just weren't able to. At all. The Lions dug deep and took the game to pens. Between our successful kicks, the comical officiating, making a sub during a shoot-out, Nani's miss and THAT Rodrigo Schlegel it's a wonder I didn't have a coronary. It was insane. Orlando triumphed against all the odds. And whilst the season ended on something of a limp note, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
USMNT recognition for Dike, Mueller and Perea
All three players had stellar seasons. Not much was expected of Andres Perea when he came in. A youngster with only 8 games under his belt, but he ends this season an international footballer. Or at least on the radar of the USMNT. Dike and Mueller's goal-scoring exploits have had them in the conversation all season, but Perea was something of a surprise inclusion. International recognition for 3 of our brightest stars is an accurate reflection of such a magnificent season for this team.
What are your thoughts on this crazy season? Have we missed anything? Probably. It's 2020 and I haven't got a sodding clue what's going on anymore...