The MLS is Back Tournament opener will officially introduce Inter Miami and Orlando City to one another, and two figures in that looming affair are already a bit familiar with one another after spending some time south of the border.
The two Florida clubs will get MLS action back underway when they face off in the first chapter of the Sunshine Clasico (or Clasico del Sol) on July 8, and the showdown between the budding rivals will see Inter Miami manager Diego Alonso and Orlando City head coach Oscar Pareja get reacquainted.
The two bosses met previously down in Liga MX back in March 2019. Pareja was victorious that day, as his Club Tijuana edged Alonso’s Monterrey by a 1-0 mark.
The two managers will again test their wits in about a week, only this time with their new teams and in a highly-anticipated match in Major League Soccer.
Here is a closer look at the two head coaches who will square off in Wednesday night’s opener:
The more known quantity in MLS circles, Pareja has been synonymous with trusting young players and giving them numerous opportunities to showcase themselves. That was certainly the case during his stint with FC Dallas, and the initial signs to his time in Orlando indicate the same thing.
In the Lions’ first two games of the season prior to the pandemic pause, Pareja relied on a number of youngsters. He started four players that were 23-years old or younger in the scoreless draw vs. Real Salt Lake in the season opener, and five in the ensuing 2-1 road loss to the Colorado Rapids. Integrating the youth is vital to him.
Affinity for up-and-comers aside, Pareja also tends to get the most out of his teams by ensuring they have the ability to play proactively. His style is a big reason why he is coming off a spell in Liga MX with Club Tijuana, after all.
Sure, the Colombian manager likes to be defensively solid and organized, but also wants his teams to play well when in possession. He asks fullbacks to get into the attack with regularity — which we saw them do in very wide spots during the first two matchdays of 2020 — and likes his teams to get good numbers forward.
In terms of formations, the 51-year-old Pareja is flexible. Depending on the opponent or situation, he can just as easily go with five at the back or with two up top. What’s more, he has already shown that in Orlando, going with a 4-2-3-1 in the season opener and then a 5-3-2 in Week 2.
The returns of star Portuguese attacker Nani and fellow veteran forward Dom Dwyer after missing the first two games could lead to a more attack-minded look against Inter Miami, especially since the Lions lacked finishing in the first two games.
That said, look for Pareja to have Orlando City try and play a smart game, one in which the Lions alternate between being the protagonists and antagonists with a blend of youth and experience.
While Orlando City has a head coach that likes up-and-comers, Inter Miami has a head coach that is an up-and-comer.
The 45-year-old Alonso landed in Miami this past winter after several good seasons in Mexico. Alonso is not only the lone manager to win the Concacaf Champions League with two different teams, but he also claimed a Liga MX Clausura title. His winning pedigree has him regarded as one of the brightest young coaching minds in the region.
Alonso’s first two matches with Inter Miami did not go as well as hoped, though. The expansion side lost by a 1-0 mark away to LAFC in a season opener that could have been worse if not for the heroics of goalkeeper Luis Robles, and then let an early lead slip away in a bemusing 2-1 road defeat vs D.C. United.
Stylistically, Inter Miami showed in those opening pair of games that it likes to deploy an aggressive press and boasts plenty of defensive tenacity and grit. Even after going down a man against D.C. United in Week 2, Inter Miami stayed resilient and continued to compete well, showcasing a tough identity that is not always easy to come by when talking about first-year clubs.
It is the attacking side of the game were Alonso will be looking to make vast improvements. The Uruguayan has not always been known for being proactive — his Pachuca side dictated tempo often, his Monterrey team did not — and Inter Miami’s game plan against D.C. United was centered more around direct play than the more aesthetically-pleasing approach of building through possession.
The latter strategy is how Inter Miami has stressed it wants to play, be it in the 4-2-3-1 formation used against LAFC, the 5-4-1 setup deployed vs. D.C. United, or a different look altogether. Inter Miami wants to build from the back and keep the ball for long stretches, creating chances that way while also limiting the time the opposition has it.
As a result, Inter Miami is unlikely to adopt a sit-and-counter method in this competition, especially not in the Sunshine Clasico. Yes, Alonso likes for his teams to be organized and disciplined defensively, but not to the point that they neglect taking good care of the ball.
Expect Inter Miami to try and be the aggressors from the onset, pressing high without the ball and stringing together long passing sequences with it.