Another disappointing campaign led to another offseason of significant change for Orlando City. This time, however, the team turned to a proven winner to right the ship.
Oscar Pareja has been given the keys in Orlando, and his task in 2020 is to try and finally get the Lions into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The 2019 season saw Orlando City finish as one of the worst teams in the league, but Pareja has overhauled a good bit of the roster as he attempts to transform the club from Eastern Conference punching bag to postseason participant.
“I think in Orlando it is not a rebuilding process. I think it’s just about keep building on the job that many others have done,” said Pareja. “Despite the good or bad experiences that we’ve had, I think there’s a job done here already that creates some foundation. We are excited to come and help to keep growing.”
Pareja will rely on several of the same faces that played for Orlando City last year. Star winger Nani returns to lead the team once again, and joining him for another season in Central Florida are striker Dom Dwyer and young attacker Chris Mueller.
Attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra is also back and expected to make a bigger impact in his first full season in MLS, something the Lions need after struggling to produce goals in 2019.
The Lions did part ways with a number of veterans this winter, including Sacha Kljestan and Lamine Sane, but have attempted to bolster the roster with technical field players from Latin America. Peruvian international Pedro Gallese has also been added to address the long-standing problem that has been the goalkeeper spot, and the belief from within is that the overall roster has the necessary balance and quality to reach the postseason at long last.
“We’ve made it a pretty clear point that this is the year that we want to make history,” Mueller told SBI. “We’ve made it a pretty clear point that this is the year that we want to make history and not only shoot for what everyone is expecting — to just make the playoffs — but we want to bring silverware back to Orlando.
“We’re also shooting to be the best team in our conference and in the league. Oscar has made that very clear and that anything less than that is just going to be selling ourselves short in the long term.”
2020 Orlando City Preview
2019 Finish: 11th in East (9-15-10, 37 points)
Key Acquisitions: Pedro Gallese, Junior Urso, Andres Perea, Rodrigo Schlegel, Antonio Carlos
Key Losses: Sacha Kljestan, Cristian Higuita, Lamine Sane, Will Johnson, Carlos Ascues
Newcomer to Watch
The Peruvian was added from Alianza Lima on a full transfer, with the hopes being that he can become a long-term solution at goalkeeper. Gallese brings with him plenty of international experience after earning more than 60 caps for his country and playing in the 2018 World Cup, and that combined with his skills with the ball are big parts of why Orlando City has turned to him to replace 2019 starter Brian Rowe.
“(Gallese is) very impressive in his distribution,” said Mueller. “I think that he can find people very well, he’s comfortable on the ball, he’s composed when you play it back to him, he’s not scared of pressure, and he can play out of that and I think that brings a lot to the possession phase.
“He’s a great shot-stopper as well. He has quick reactions. It’s tough to put the ball in the goal. He’s a great goalie.”
As lights out as Gallese can be, he also has occasional lapses and positional issues. Limiting those types of gaffes will be key if he is to cement his place as Orlando City’s No. 1 and if the team is to avoid dropping points needlessly.
Pressure Is On
The veteran striker is coming off his worst goal-scoring season since 2013 after finishing with just seven tallies in 27 appearances last year. If Orlando City is to improve in the attack and fulfill its dreams of reaching the playoffs in 2020, Dwyer will have to rediscover his clinical touch in order to finalize plays at a higher rate.
The Lions are planning to play a more proactive style this season, and will need a deadly finisher in the final third.
“How can we increase the goal production? It’s a collective effort,” said Pareja. “Obviously the forwards normally are the ones who put the ball in the back of the net at the end, but it’s a collective effort. We can build better, we can collaborate better, we can create chances and give the opportunity to the forward to score.”
It was another frustrating, playoff-less season for the Lions in 2019. The team ended the campaign well below the red line in the Eastern Conference and made its third head-coaching change in four years shortly thereafter, firing James O’Connor in early October for not reaching the postseason.
Enter scene, Oscar Pareja.
The grizzled manager with MLS experience is immediately being tasked with making Orlando City a more competitive club, with improvements needed on both sides of the ball.
“I would like to increase the possession of the team and not losing the ball as easy as I have seen it and probably be more protagonists of the game, even in the away games,” said Pareja. “(Also) be a team that’s hard to play against. Many people may think that we’re a team that plays in the defensive phase a lot, but if you’re strong in that end you’re going to win points.
“Also in increasing the possession and increasing the numbers of chances and being more protagonists of the game, we will see a team that’s more offensive.”
With a new coach usually comes new ideas and new players that fit those ideas. Pareja’s vision for the Lions already appears to be taking shape, with the offseason additions of Gallese, Brazilian holding midfielder Junior Urso, and Argentine centerback Rodrigo Schlegel among the moves that have been made to raise the quality of the team.
Those reinforcements may be tasked more with helping improve an Orlando City defense that surrendered 52 goals in 2019, but Pareja is putting plenty of focus into the attack. The Lions scored just 44 times last year, a number that will need to improve if the club is to reward its suffering fanbase with the first playoff game in franchise history.
Mauricio Pereyra, who arrived to the team last summer, figures to be a key ingredient in that regard. The Uruguayan playmaker is expected to pull the strings from the center of the park while star attacker Nani attacks from wide spots to help feed striker Dom Dwyer in the penalty area.
Orlando City is planning to raise its production through possession, though that does not mean the team will always play short and on the ground.
“I think that’s definitely a tactical aspect and a technical aspect that he’s been looking for, but also he has not expressed fear to play it long if that’s what on,” said Mueller. “If it’s on us to be direct and go in behind and that’s where the space is, he doesn’t want to overplay it and risk things in the back that are unnecessary.
“But he also says that we need to have the courage, so I think it’s about a balance that the players need to find. The principles are there.”
So too are expectations.
Orlando City has had a rough time during its first five years in MLS, and supporters in Central Florida are demanding postseason soccer after enduring a frustrating half-decade filled with frequent poor performances, managerial changers, and roster overhauls.
These revamped Lions look better poised to more seriously compete for one of the east’s seven playoffs spots. The current squad might just be as talented and balanced as it has ever been, and is being led by a head coach that has a history in MLS of maximizing talents.
“I think the idea that we have here has been growing the last couple of weeks and now I’m ready to receive the pressure,” said Pareja. “It’s normal. I’m here to win games. I know that’s my job, and we’ll do it.”
Orlando City Roster
Goalkeepers: Pedro Gallese, Brian Rowe, Mason Stajduhar.
Defenders: Antonio Carlos, Alex De John, Kamal Miller, Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Joao Moutinho, Rodrigo Schlegel, Ruan.
Midfielders: Jordan Bender, Joey DeZart, David Loera, Sebastian Mendez, Andres Perea, Mauricio Pereyra, Robinho, Uri Rosell, Junior Urso.
Forwards: Tesho Akindele, Daryl Dike, Chris Mueller, Santiago Patino, Dom Dwyer, Josue Colman, Benji Michel, Nani.