Oscar Pareja is building something special at Orlando City. And MLS Is Back is just the beginning.
There was much talk of 'building a culture' during the build-up to the 2019 MLS season. Luiz Muzzi and James O'Connor often spoke about the need to build a winning culture at Orlando City. Whilst the talk might have been impressive enough, the walk was far from that. O'Connor's, frankly, baffling selections at times did not back up this ideology of a winning culture. Resting players for long trips, giving out appearances on player's birthdays, not setting up to win games but just to avoid defeat. His team selections were bordering on flagrant at times. There was no desire to win. And that's why we didn't. That's why we missed the play-offs yet again. In a season where it should have been easier, with 7 qualifying from the east as opposed to 6. It was a mess.
As such I think Orlando City supporters could be forgiven for having a distinct feeling of déjà vu when Muzzi and Oscar Pareja uttered that fateful word; culture. But this time, it's for real. MLS Is Back has gone very well for Orlando City thus far. A quarter final tie against tournament favourites LAFC lies in wait. LAFC is a team that Orlando will be wary of, and rightly so. The team has scored 15 times this tournament, but they've also conceded 8. A chink in the armour that Oscar Pareja will want to tap.
And therein lies the difference between James O'Connor's Orlando City and Oscar Pareja's. Whereas O'Connor's team will have solely focused on nullifying the threat of Bob Bradley's star-studded line-up, Oscar Pareja's will exploit ways to defeat it. Whilst simultaneously attempting to neutralise their considerable threat. This team doesn't want to avoid defeat at all costs, it wants to win. And if it can't? Then we avoid defeat.
Throughout this MLS Is Back tournament, Pareja has used a mostly settled line-up. Had injuries not forced his hand, we may not have seen any changes at all. There is continuity. Partnerships are forming all over the field. Look at Moutinho and Nani, Peryra and Nani, Mueller and Ruan. I could go on. Everyone knows their jobs; things aren't being chopped and changed very week. There is a very clear identity to this squad. And with that, an unflappable attention to detail.
Everything about the MLS Is Back tournament, for Orlando City, has been thoughtfully and meticulously thought through by Pareja and his backroom team. I recently joined Taylor from Orlando City UK, Gavin from Lionsblog and Eddie from Orlando Lions Den to talk about this very subject. We all spoke of the attention to detail shown by Oscar Pareja and his staff. Right down from their early arrival at Disney, their fitness, their camaraderie. Even THAT chalkboard. And the players are 100% dialed in. There isa genuine enthusiasm to get this club to where it wants to be.
And it's not just his attention to detail with the first team that emanates this feeling that something special is about to happen. It's his desire to lay down solid foundations from which to build upon in the future. His willingness to develop youth was the very bedrock of his success with FC Dallas. The likes of Walker Zimmerman and Kellyn Acosta came through the Dallas set up, and became part of Pareja's famous U.S. Open Cup and Support's Shield winning side in 2016.
Pareja not only wants to win now but he wants to put the framework for future success into place. A framework that has never truly been present. This club has often been accused, and correctly in my eyes, as looking for short term fixes. We'll just sign Kaká and everything will work out just fine. That's not how it works, Rome wasn't built in a day. You can throw money at a team and experience short term success with the right coach. *cough* Atlanta *cough*.
That sort of 'win now, forget all else' mentality is nothing more than a gunslinger's approach. And our rivals to the north are seeing that now. Oscar Pareja simply does not work that way. Yes, we have Nani. But we also have Chris Mueller, Mauricio Pereyra and Tesho Akindele. Beyond that? Youth. Benji Michel. Daryl Dike. Joey DeZart. David Loera. Sebas Mendez (he's still only 22!). There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. This tournament is only the beginning.
And this sort of attitude and approach is infectious. Whilst it's important not to get carried away with 3 wins and a draw, it's also important to acknowledge the progress being made. And to feel excited about it. This is a club, and a team which has become synonymous with failure since 2015. I'm sorry, but it has. The stench of mediocrity has circled Orlando City Soccer Club for far too long. Whilst MLS Is Back might be coming to an end, and I don't think anyone realistically harbours expectations of victory in the tournament overall, this tournament has to be viewed as the beginning of something special. Otherwise what is the point?