As we count down to the new year of 2024 — which will be Orlando City’s 10th in MLS and the Orlando Pride’s ninth in the NWSL — and say goodbye to 2023, it’s time to look back at the club’s 10 best moments of the year as selected by The Mane Land staff via vote.
Orlando City B traveled to visit Chicago Fire II on Friday, Sept. 15 in what was essentially a postseason play-in match. The Young Lions were 12-10-4 with one shootout win and sitting on 41 points and had a much-improved season up to that point. They were in the top five of the Eastern Conference just one year removed from a ninth-place finish in which OCB finished a full 15 points below the playoff line. It seemed like for the first time in seven years, OCB had a real opportunity to reach the postseason.
Behind the scoring of forwards Jack Lynn and Shak Mohammed and an evenly spread number of goals among their teammates, the Young Lions had navigated well through the 2023 season, largely on the strength of their home form, where they were 8-3-2 heading into the match in Chicago at SeatGeek Stadium. But OCB needed a result to clinch a spot in the postseason against a feisty Chicago Fire II side that was giving chase in the Eastern Conference race. Both teams were on the verge of a playoff berth.
Things didn’t start well for Orlando City B, as Sergio Oregel opened the scoring for Chicago in just the 17th minute off an assist from Dylan Borso. It was an unfortunate moment for the Young Lions, as the ball took a couple of kind deflections for the hosts, which left OCB unable to clear.
OCB had a high-powered offense all season, but on Sept. 15 it seemed like the Young Lions were misfiring. They mustered just 12 shot attempts all game long and only three were on target, and as time started winding down, it seemed like the goal would never come.
But as was the case most of the season, just when things looked problematic for OCB, the Young Lions somehow responded. The equalizer waited until the 71st minute but it eventually came. Midfielder Wilfredo Rivera, who replaced Franco Perez just 10 minutes earlier, was the difference maker. Juninho found himself at the end line with the ball and attempted a pass across goal for the onrushing Rivera. A defender got a foot to the pass, which deflected it up into the air. That was no trouble for Rivera, who launched himself forward and sent a diving header past Chicago goalkeeper Jeffrey Gall to level the match at 1-1.
The Young Lions on the pitch may not have known it as the game clock ticked up toward 90, but results elsewhere meant that a single point was good enough to make the playoffs. That didn’t stop OCB from trying to pick out a late winner. Although Orlando came close a couple of times, the match ended at 1-1. In MLS NEXT Pro, a draw means a shootout to determine the winner of a second point.
In their previous four draws on the season, the Young Lions had only won one of the four ensuing penalty shootouts. But OCB set the right tone immediately. Homegrown fullback Alex Freeman scored the opening penalty and Javier Otero guessed correctly to deny Luka Prpa, the first Fire shooter.
But this was OCB, so things never go as planned. Cristian Medina sent OCB’s second penalty right down the middle, but Gal was able to keep his feet centered as he dove, denying the attempt. Noah Egan scored to even up the shootout at 1-1 after two rounds.
Juninho and Jhon Solis took care of the next two OCB penalties, but the Fire answered each time, setting up sudden death starting in Round 5. But five rounds were sufficient. Cristofer Acuna drilled home OCB’s fifth attempt into the roof of the net to put the pressure on Chicago. Otero then mirrored Gal’s earlier shootout save by leaving his feet in to block a shot down the middle. The goalkeeper’s second save in spot kicks clinched a second point for OCB and the Young Lions reached the postseason for the first time since 2016.
To get a sense of how long ago that playoff appearance was, the Young Lions were playing in the USL and featured players such as Richie Laryea, Hadji Barry, Lewis Neal, Conor Donovan, Tony Rocha, and Michael Cox.
Orlando City puts more emphasis on player development than results when it comes to the reserve side. This often means a lot of player rotation to get guys minutes, rather than finding a cohesive lineup and sticking with it. That isn’t always conducive to the best results and OCB has generally found itself low in the standings each year.
But in 2023, the Young Lions bucked that trend. It didn’t matter who started, who came off the bench, or which first-team players made guest appearances. Despite a revolving door of starters and reserves, OCB Head Coach Martin Perelman was able to get consistent results at home and steal enough on the road to keep his squad in playoff contention all season. That culminated with a shootout win at Chicago in mid-September that locked down a postseason berth for Orlando, making it a worthy inclusion in our top moments of the year.
The Young Lions went on to win at home over FC Cincinnati 2 on Decision Day and visited Columbus Crew 2 in the first round of the postseason. Unfortunately, the reserve side met the same fate as the first team, with a playoff exit at the hands of Columbus. Juninho conceded two penalties in that match — the second one with the game tied in the 88th minute — allowing Crew 2 to squeak past OCB at home 2-1 despite the hosts not scoring in the run of play. Perez was able to cancel out the first one with a goal of his own but the Young Lions weren’t able to recover from the late one.
Still, it was a solid season for Perelman’s OCB team and hopefully the start of a more successful trend for Orlando City B.
Come back through New Year’s Eve as we count down the remainder of Orlando City’s top 10 moments of 2023.
Previous Top Moments of 2023
10. The Orlando Pride select breakout stars Emily Madril and Messiah Bright in the 2023 NWSL Draft.