Location (league): Orlando, Fla., USA (MLS)
Date founded: 2013 Appearances in CCC/CCL: 1
Best finish: Round of 16 (2023)
First opponent: Cavalry FC
Orlando City step into the Concacaf Champions Cup for the second consecutive year, looking to build on their debut in 2023 and win on this continental stage for the first time.
The Lions enter 2024 after the strongest season in club history, but they didn’t manage to lift any silverware. Under talented manager Óscar Pareja, this year they’re they’re looking to become just the fourth Major League Soccer team to win the Champions Cup.
Founded as MLS’s 21st expansion team in 2013, Orlando played its first season in the league in 2015 — succeeding a USL team by the same name that operated from 2010 to 2014. They made waves in their debut year by signing legendary Brazilian midfielder Kaká as their first ever designated player, and a couple years after he left in 2017 they added another international superstar in Luís Nani.
Despite some big-name players and a raucous atmosphere from the purple wall supporters’ section in Orlando, though, success evaded the club until recently. They first made the playoffs in 2020, but have yet to advance beyond the conference semifinals. The Lions did finally lift a trophy in 2022, when they won the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup over Sacramento Republic.
Orlando might currently be competing for Florida supremacy with cross-state rivals Inter Miami, but they’ve got some starpower of their own, from Nico Lodeiro to Facundo Torres to Pedro Gallese in goal. This is a well-coached team with plenty of difference-makers, aiming to make a deep run on the continental stage.
Orlando earned their spot by finishing second in the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings. With an 18-9-7 record, they set a club record in both wins and points (63) to finish second in the entire league, six points back of Shield winners FC Cincinnati. The year before, they qualified for Concacaf by winning the U.S. Open Cup; this time around, it was their league performance that got them onto the continental stage.
Colombian gaffer Óscar Pareja has been at the helm for Orlando since the 2020 season, steering them through the last four campaigns in MLS. When he took over, the club had never made the playoffs in its history, but they’ve successfully qualified for the postseason every year under Pareja. With a 70-37-42 coaching record with Orlando, Pareja has more total wins than his next closest competitor (Jason Kreis) had total matches in charge.
Prior to taking the job in Florida, Pareja had been head coach of Liga MX side Tijuana, and he also previously managed a pair of other MLS sides in Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas — the latter of which won the Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup in 2016, a season where Pareja himself was also named MLS’s Coach of the Year. As a player, Pareja played almost 400 professional games in Colombia split between Independiente Medellín and Deportivo Cali, before finishing his career in MLS with New England Revolution and FC Dallas.
Pareja was rewarded this off-season with a new contract extension, which will keep him in charge of the Lions through 2025.
3 Key Players
The 23-year-old Uruguayan signed for Orlando in 2022 as a Young Designated Player, with the Lions paying a then-club record $9 million U.S. fee to acquire him from Peñarol. The shifty winger has been worth it though, being arguably Orlando’s best player in 2023 with a team-leading 14 goals (joint-seventh in MLS) plus three assists.
Torres can line up on either wing for Orlando as well as in more central roles if necessary; regardless, expect him to be the focal point of much of the attack. He recently signed a new long-term contract with the Lions ahead of 2024, amid some speculation he’d received interest from clubs in Europe, so he’ll remain their greatest threat for the foreseeable future.
Orlando’s second Designated Player, Ojeda is a 25-year-old winger hailing from Argentina. He joined the club last January and impressed from the get-go, scoring his first MLS goal in his fourth game and following that the next match with a goal and an assist in a massive 2-1 away win at Philadelphia Union. He finished with six goals and seven assists, leading Orlando in the latter category.
Ojeda will likely play the opposite wing to Torres in a more playmaking role, where he may cut in onto his left foot or whip in a cross from out wide.
One of the biggest intra-MLS moves of the off-season this year was the 34-year-old Lodeiro opting to sign in Orlando. The Uruguayan number 10 spent the last eight seasons with Seattle Sounders FC, where he racked up 40 goals and 50 assists in MLS regular season play alone. Lodeiro won MLS Cup twice, in 2016 and 2019, was named to the MLS Best XI in 2020 (when he led the league in assists), and he was the league’s Newcomer of the Year in 2016.
Critically in this situation, Lodeiro also captained Seattle when they won the Concacaf Champions Cup in 2022, scoring twice in the first leg of the final against Pumas and adding another goal and assist in the second leg at home to clinch the trophy.
Lodeiro has been one of the best players in MLS for most of the last decade, but he has plenty of other accolades on his résumé from before he landed in Seattle. He won the Eredivisie twice with Ajax, as well as the Argentinian top flight with Boca Juniors in 2015. He was also a member of the Uruguay national squad that won Copa América in 2011. His choice to sign with Orlando as a free agent this winter was a surprise to most, but he’ll add major experience and talent to their attack. He’s already begun making his mark, with an assist in their first preseason match against Flamengo.
As mentioned, Orlando City are coming off the best season in club history, which saw them finish second in the league and set club records for wins (18) and points (63). They lost just one of their last 12 games of the regular season, and didn’t lose at home (in any competition) for seven whole months.
That said, the Lions’ most recent competitive fixture left a sour taste in their mouths, as they lost the Eastern Conference semifinal in extra time to eventual MLS Cup winners Columbus Crew SC. The club’s preseason campaign began in January, with an impressive 1-1 draw against Brazilian club Flamengo.
After a strong 2023 season, Orlando made only a few changes to the squad, losing a few players including captain Mauricio Pereyra and Brazilian centre-back Antônio Carlos, and sending winger Gastón González and Canadian fullback Luca Petrasso out on loan. Rumours are also swirling at the moment that young American striker Duncan McGuire, who scored 13 goals in MLS last year, could be on the move before the tournament too.
They added talent, though, with former Seattle star Nicolás Lodeiro, also adding Colombian winger Iván Angulo on a permanent deal after having him on loan the last two years. Just days before the start of the tournament, they’ve also filled their final Designated Player spot, signing Colombian forward Luis Muriel, a veteran with 14 years’ experience in the Spanish and Italian top flights.
Orlando put up a very good fight in their Concacaf debut against Tigres last year, holding the Mexican giants to a draw in both legs (plus a clean sheet in Monterrey) but bowing out of the round of 16 tie on away goals.
This year, they’ve brought back much of the same squad with some added experience, including a Concacaf Champions League winner in Lodeiro. It’s clear that Orlando feel they can compete to win this tournament, with beating Cavalry and going to the round of 16 a a bare minimum expectation.
The next round would see them play either a rematch with Tigres or an MLS clash against Vancouver Whitecaps, and a potential quarter-final opponent would be another MLS team — either Columbus Crew, Houston Dynamo or St. Louis City, all of which finished below Orlando in 2023. It won’t be easy, especially with a tough league schedule beginning Feb. 24 as well, but the Lions have every right to see themselves as candidates for a deep run in this tournament.
First round schedule
Leg 1: Wednesday, Feb. 21
Cavalry FC vs. Orlando City SC — Starlight Stadium, Langford, B.C. 10 p.m. ET/8 p.m. MT/7 p.m. PT
Leg 2: Tuesday, Feb. 27
Orlando City SC vs. Cavalry FC — Inter&Co Stadium, Orlando, Fla. 6 p.m. ET/4 p.m. MT/3 p.m. PT
The 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup begins Feb. 6, 2024. Forge FC will take on C.D. Guadalajara (beginning Feb. 7), and Cavalry FC will play Orlando City SC (beginning Feb. 21). The matches will be available to watch in Canada on OneSoccer.