Rivalry Week

Florida Derby: Orlando City enter massive moment vs. Inter Miami


The gleeful grin on Leo Messi’s face as he wheeled away said it all.

The Argentine had just chested down the ball, Orlando City’s goal open and at his mercy from point-blank range after Robin Jansson’s desperate goal-line clearance of a Jordi Alba shot could only clang off the crossbar and drop into Messi’s path.

The backtracking Rodrigo Schlegel took a swipe with his left foot, then grabbed a fistful of the GOAT’s jersey, to no avail – the Lions’ defense was so thoroughly undressed that Messi didn’t even have to apply a final touch, merely holding his space and watching as the ball bounced into the net for Inter Miami’s fourth goal of a 5-0 rout back on March 2 at Chase Stadium. Doing so appeared to deepen his enjoyment amid such a comprehensive beatdown of the adversary his team’s supporters love to hate.

Pressure on Lions

“It was a complete performance because we played a great game. We knew we had to come out with a lot of intensity today because Orlando demand it – a lot of bodies crashing, waiting in the back for the counter,” Messi told MLS Season Pass analyst Diego Valeri in Spanish postgame, his disdain for the Lions subtle but unmistakable.

Messi has lived in Florida for less than a year, but he’s a clever fellow. He immediately, instinctively grasped the elevated stakes and rancor of Miami vs. Orlando, even with the cross-Florida showdown still in its infancy compared to prominent derbies around MLS and beyond - let alone El Clasico, the culture clash for the ages between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid that he lived, breathed and largely dominated in Spain.

In fact, this fixture doesn’t even have a widely-accepted name yet, with suggestions like Clasico del Sol, El Sunpassico, Pub Subico and Tropic Thunder proposed but still up for debate. The pink and purple factions may well argue about that for a few more years. There’s real antagonism between these fan bases, and neither club can truly consider their bigger goals of consistent trophy contention achieved without attaining mastery, or at the very least a measure of equity, against their in-state enemy.

Which most decidedly puts the onus on Orlando this time out.

Record-wise, OCSC and IMCF are deadlocked at 5W-5L-4D apiece in their all-time series history heading into Wednesday night’s Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire clash at Orlando’s Inter&Co. Stadium (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass). But the Herons have claimed victory in their first two meetings in the post-Messi era, the first a tense, ill-tempered 3-1 victory in the Round of 32 of last year’s Leagues Cup and the second that aforementioned whipping two months ago.

Messi contributed four goals and one assist across those 180-plus minutes. He also flashed glimpses of the ferocious intensity that he so often keeps just under the surface, most strikingly when he clashed extensively with César Araújo during the Leagues Cup game, having taken umbrage at some aspect of the young Lions midfielder’s tenacious marking and tackling.

Signs of life

Orlando boss Oscar Pareja showed his fangs a bit too, blasting what he called a “circus” atmosphere instigated by the hype around Messi’s arrival, as well as the very soft penalty-kick call on Antônio Carlos that handed IMCF the initiative. A Colombian international during his own playing days, Pareja brings his own sort of South American ‘garra’ to OCSC much like his counterpart Gerardo “Tata” Martino does with Miami.

Over the past four years Pareja has elevated his club from underachievers to contenders via a roster heavy with Latino culture and savvy. Everyone will be profoundly aware of how important a determined performance will be this week, particularly given the woeful start to the 2024 campaign: OCSC lost five of their first 11 matches, dropping myriad points at home in particular.

The weekend’s 3-2 road win over Philadelphia dropped some data points suggesting the Lions may at last be moving past that. Showcase winter signing Luis Muriel finally opened his MLS account with a well-taken brace, looking more engaged in a forward pairing with Duncan McGuire as Pareja tried out a new 3-5-2 formation intended to get both strikers firing at the same time.

Those signs of life will have to flare again at midweek.

“Un partido muy representativo para los dos equipos, por ser pues el rival de patio,” was a phrase Pareja used in a Monday media availability, which translates to “a very symbolic/significant match for both teams, because it is the backyard rival.”

El rival de patio. That’s a term to remember as league-leading Miami – who face a last-minute decision on Messi’s availability due to a knee knock he picked up in the win at Montréal over the weekend – make the 200-mile trip up the peninsula.

In the four-plus years of this matchup, Orlando have yet to lose to the Herons on home turf. But so far the ‘Messi & Friends’ project has pushed them into the shade in the Sunshine State, and with the Lions treading water outside the playoff places while IMCF flex atop the overall MLS table, a loss on Wednesday would marginalize them even further.

Can you really become your best self if you don’t control your own backyard?