The elusive task of reaching the playoffs has finally been achieved. Now for Orlando City the objective is to build on that by taking the next step.
Orlando City enjoyed the best season in franchise history in 2020, quickly adapting to a new head coach and project en route to reaching the postseason for the first time at long last. Along the way the Lions demonstrated some good soccer while establishing a new identity, and even made it to a final at the MLS is Back Tournament last July.
Success brings with it expectations, however, and Orlando City heads into the new season knowing the bar has been raised. Last year was a very good start for an organization that had long been linked with futility, but now the encore showing has to be even better.
“We found an identity and I think that identity needs to grow,” said Orlando City head coach Oscar Pareja. “It has to be evolving and we always think that is an ongoing process. I can see that we have a team already that is finding ways to get results, to be protagonists of the games.
“Now the most challenging part right now is how to be consistent with it,” Pareja said. “How can we bring not even those results but better results and be committed with our fans to win and not escape from that commitment that says we are here to win games.”
If the Lions are planning to do even more winning in 2021, then they will have to do so with the same core and much of the roster that impressed a year ago. Superstar attacker Nani returns to the fray and so too does the bulk of the squad that reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals, including exciting U.S. Men’s National Team duo Andres Perea and Chris Mueller.
A notable player has joined the charge, though: Alexandre Pato. The veteran Brazilian becomes the latest big-name signing made by the central Florida side, and the hope is that he can help deliver goals at a good rate this season. Especially if red-hot striker Daryl Dike does not return to Orlando from his English excursion.
As talented as the squad may be, bigger challenges await the Lions this year. Opposing teams will be more familiar with what Pareja’s side has to offer, and there is also an added competition on the docket to have to navigate through.
The ingredients are there for Orlando City to build on the foundation that was laid in 2020. The team took MLS by storm last season, and now the idea is to turn into a true championship contender.
“Last year we had a lot of joy achieving many objectives, but at the same time we understand that we were short on the final prize in the league,” said Pareja. “It is something we want so bad to give to the community and to the club. With the energy that the boys have and the desire, the dreams and the commitment, we are expecting nothing but to just keep growing and keep competing for the first places.”
Here is a closer look at 2021 Orlando City:
2021 Orlando City Season Preview
2020 Finish: Fourth place in East (11-4-8, 41 points, lost in the conference semifinals)
Key Acquisitions: Alexandre Pato, Silvester van der Water
Key Losses: Daryl Dike*, Josue Colman, Kamal Miller
(* = on loan)
Newcomer to Watch: Alexandre Pato
The former Brazilian international may not be in his prime any more and has not played at all since July, but Pato might still be able to provide Orlando City with the type of scoring threat that can help the team take that next step. The 31-year-old forward has played the game at the highest levels and boasts plenty of experience and know-how in front of the net, qualities that should be able to free up the talented likes of Nani and that could prove vital if Daryl Dike does not come back for a second season.
“I have seen Pato in a really good way,” said Nani in Spanish. “On the field he is demonstrating his quality. I know he has not played in some time and that he had to regain his rhythm, but I think in the last preseason games he should a good level in terms of his rhythm. He scored goals, helped the team with its style of play, and is already delivering in a good way and the team also now knows a little more about how he plays.”
Pressure is On: Nani
With Dike’s status for the season unclear and Pato needing to work his way back after a lengthy layoff, Nani has to once again be the catalyst for Orlando City’s attack. The Portuguese winger has enjoyed two good seasons with the Lions, but is 34-years old now and has to show that he can stay healthy and maintain his high level of goals and assists. Anything less could result in his side suffering a big dip in production in the final third.
Showcasing an improved brand of soccer under head coach Oscar Pareja, Orlando City reached the playoffs for the first time in 2020. The Lions went on to pick up an unforgettable and thrilling win in their inaugural postseason match vs. New York City FC, with centerback Rodrigo Schlegel serving as the goalkeeping hero in penalties, but the euphoria was zapped in the ensuing game.
The pain from that match, a loss to the New England Revolution, and subsequent elimination still admittedly lingers for members of Orlando City. Still, last season by and large was a good first step into Pareja’s project and the hope is that the team can take the next one in 2021.
“The first message for the players when they came to the preseason was to remind them that this is a continuity of our journey,” said Pareja. “This is not a starting over. I can still see that illusion and that motivation that the players have to return to the league and I tell them every day, and I say this to myself also, what happened with New England … those things make us stronger.
“Not that we want to yearn and think about negativities, but I think if you learn from those situations and transform them into positive things it is the way you can grow teams and ourselves.”
It is clear that Orlando City has prioritized trying to evolve and grow with many of the same faces that played last year. The team did not make many new moves this offseason, preferring instead to ensure the returns of core players like Schlegel, Antonio Carlos, and Andres Perea who were on loan during the previous campaign.
Continuity has been stressed, but there is a significant new addition to field alongside the likes of skillful winger Nani, 2020 breakout attacker Chris Mueller, and veteran goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. Former Brazil national team forward Alexandre Pato was signed this winter as a free agent, and the idea is that he will bring the type of goal-scoring production from the No. 9 spot that Orlando City had long been missing before Dike arrived in 2020 and enjoyed a breakout rookie season.
“It is not easy getting back into things because I had a lengthy layoff,” said Pato, who last played in a game for Sao Paulo in July, in Spanish. “I am enjoying myself now and I am preparing my body for the entire season to come. I see myself working very hard and I feel the difference in my body because I have started to play again, I have started to enjoy playing again. I feel very happy here.”
Pato may need to deliver in front of the net for Orlando City, especially if Dike secures a permanent move to Europe, but Nani will have to do his part in the attack as well. The Portuguese star has been the lead figure for the Lions since 2019, and will need to be at close to his best individually for them to continue to improve collectively.
Of course, the midfield and defense will need to impress again, too. The back line was vastly improved last season thanks to incorporations like big central defender Antonio Carlos and tough holding midfielder Junior Urso. Gallese has to be solid in goal as well.
Making things tough this year, however, is the fact that starting left back Joao Moutinho is set to miss several months as he recovers from a hip injury. His potential replacement, Jonathan Suarez, was let go this offseason almost as quickly as he was signed following an arrest, so finding a solution at that position is key.
Another challenge will be having to juggle different competitions. The 2020 success that was enjoyed means the Lions will take part in the next edition of the Leagues Cup, which will pit the side against Liga MX clubs. Depth will be tested as a result, meaning offseason acquisition Silvester van der Water, fullback Kyle Smith, and other role players will have to perform when called upon.
“It is very important to have a deeper roster,” said Pareja. “… I am mostly content with the roster that we have so far. I always open some slots so we can see what the future brings and then we can adapt and bring in some players that we need.
“We may need to reinforce a couple of places in the back just to be deeper, but at this time we are good.”
Orlando City, at least on paper, has the makings to be a potential MLS Cup contender. Pareja showed in 2020 that he can squeeze a lot out of the group, and the majority of the roster that impressed last year is back for another run.
The Lions’ current project may only be in its second year, but dreams and championship aspirations have replaced the frustration and years of disappointment in Orlando.
“We want to replicate the special times last year,” said Pareja. “But most important is that we can achieve more objectives this year.”
Orlando City Roster
Goalkeeper– Pedro Gallese, Brandon Austin, Mason Stajduhar
Defenders– Ruan, Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, Joao Moutinho, Rodrigo Schlegel, Kyle Smith, Rio Hope-Gund, Michael Halliday
Midfielders– Raul Aguilera Jr., Andres Perea, Junior Urso, Mauricio Pereyra, Uri Rosell, Jhegson Mendez, Chris Mueller, David Loera, Joey DeZart, Jordan Bender, Benji Michel
Forwards– Nani, Daryl Dike, Alexandre Pato, Silvester van der Water, Tesho Akindele, Alexander Alvarado, Matheus Alas, Wilfredo Rivera