Florida's Sunshine Clasico feels like a real rivalry in just its third season
By Ken Garner
Yep. After Orlando City SC shoved Inter Miami out of the U.S. Open Cup tournament in a penalty shootout last month, the Sunshine Clasico still feels like a real rivalry.
Sure, the teams' geographical proximity gave Major League Soccer's all-Florida matchup the shell of a rivalry, and supporters' groups on both sides have filled social media with vitriol, but the young "rivalry" has felt artificial. Fabricated. A marketing tool and not much more. But the Lions' 1-1 (4-2) knockout victory May 25 at Exploria Stadium has given this rivalry roots.
Why? The biggest reason is consequences. The Open Cup round-of-16 match was by far the most consequential meeting between Orlando City and Inter Miami in the teams' brief existence.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the United States, first played during the 1913–1914 season as the National Challenge Cup and won by Brooklyn Field Club. No, it's not the MLS Cup or the Supporters Shield, but it IS a prestigious trophy. Only one Florida team has lifted that hardware -- the St. Petersburg Kickers (now Florida Kickers FC) in 1989. Neither Orlando nor Inter Miami ever has played in the Open Cup final, although the Herons' MLS predecessor in South Florida, the Miami Fusion, played for the cup in 2000, losing to 2-1 to Chicago Fire.
Orlando SC and Inter Miami play out the Sunshine Clasico in MLS and the US Open Cup
So, it was an important match. Both teams had won twice in the tournament, Inter Miami edging USL Championship side Miami FC 0-1 and outscoring USL League One side Tormenta 3-1.
This was IMCF's first Open Cup experience. The Lions have reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup five times, including their 2013 run when when the team still played in USL. Orlando also made the quarters in 2015, 2018, 2019 and now 2022 in MLS. Orlando will host Nashville SC in the quarterfinals June 29.
Even better, and fitting the game's significance, the sides played an exciting, competitive match that ended in a scoreless tie. Midfielder Jean Mota scored his first Inter Miami goal, a scorching worm-burner in the 94th minute, to briefly give the Herons the lead, but budding star Fecundo Torres evened the score just three minutes later. The tiring squads slugged it out for 23 more minutes with neither able to net a winner.
The shootout shifted the focus to goalkeepers Drake Callender and Mason Stajduhar. Miami's Callender, stellar since being inserted into the starting lineup in Nick Marsman's injury absence, couldn't stop Orlando's penalty takers; Stajduhar guessed right against Heron midfielder Bryce Duke, and defender Deandre Yedlin sailed his penalty over the crossbar. Orlando captain Mauricio Pereyra, who assisted Torres' goal, snuck a shot to the bottom left corner past Callender to clinch the victory.
After the match, Miami coach Phil Neville praised his team’s efforts against Orlando City, saying he was “super proud” the players gave everything they could, and that it didn’t feel like a loss.
" “It was a typical derby game, a hell of a game played between two teams that just wanted to win it.""- Inter Miami coach Phil Neville
“It was a typical derby game, a hell of a game played between two teams that just wanted to win it,” he said. “These U.S. Open Cup games are the future, winner takes all, loser goes home. What you saw was not just 11 players, but also the five subs, give absolutely everything and it came up to penalties.”
The first two seasons of the Herons-Lions rivalry featured some entertaining matches and saw the teams pretty evenly matched. OK, maybe those meetings were building the rivalry's foundation, but as far as I'm concerned, the Sunshine Clasico began in earnest last week in Orlando.
If you haven't already, mark these dates on your calendar: Inter Miami returns to Exploria Stadium July 9 for the sides' first MLS regular season meeting of the year, and Orlando City visits DRV PNK Stadium on Sept. 4 for what might -- just might, mind you -- be a battle of playoff contenders. Wouldn't THAT be a great next chapter in this intrastate rivalry?