In his first year in charge, Oscar Pareja may have found the recipe for success, leading Orlando City to its best season yet in Major League Soccer.
A run to the final of this past summer’s MLS is Back Tournament.
Finally beating rival Atlanta United not once, but twice.
A club record 12-game unbeaten streak.
Now on Saturday, Orlando will finally compete in the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time when it hosts New York City FC at 12 noon at Exploria Stadium.
Despite all the accomplishments during a topsy-turvy year, Pareja credits an unwavering determination from his players as a result to this year’s winning season.
“What I’ve liked the most about this group in regards to the results, they have ambition,” Pareja said in Spanish. “I feel the ambition from this team to win things. It’s a group that doesn’t conform with things that we’ve achieved. And that relaxes me because I see them training and they want more.”
“We understand we’ve achieved some important steps, taking Orlando to the playoffs, but we want triumphs and we want titles and that’s what we’re working for.”
The Lions (11-4-8, 41 points) finished in fourth place in the Eastern Conference in a year that also saw Orlando advance all the way into the final of the MLS is Back Tournament this past summer at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
This year also saw the steady progression of several players, such as Chris Mueller who posted a career-high 10 goals and 7 assists during the shortened 23-game regular season.
“Now it’s a new story, it’s a new tournament, it’s everybody playing for that one game and we will try to do as much as we can at our training ground just to prepare ourselves to do that,” said Pareja.
Rookie Daryl Dike’s surprise breakout season midway through the year proved to be critical for Orlando, while Mauricio Pereyra‘s vision in the midfield kept the Lions ticking in the attack.
Orlando even did something it failed to do in 2019, which was string together consecutive positive results.
With Pareja appointed as head coach ahead of the 2020 season, the Lions not only changed their style of play, but went on a 12-game unbeaten streak shortly after the MLS is Back Tournament, which eventually cemented their playoff aspirations.
“We’re very proud to play our first [playoff] game in team history,” said Pareja. “The boys have done a terrific effort on taking the team to this stage and we want more. I think we’re capable, I think we have a team who has proved themselves, that we have the players and the idea of the game to compete with anyone in the league.”
Pareja confirmed with reporters on Thursday that Uri Rosell will be available for selection on Saturday. The Spanish midfielder has not featured for Orlando since Sept. 5 during a 1-1 draw against Atlanta because of an undisclosed injury and went on to miss the remaining 13 games of the regular season.
João Moutinho, who’s been out since August because of a groin injury, has been training with the squad as of late, according to Pareja, but the defender has been ruled out for this weekend.
In regards to Sebastian Mendez, who has been with Ecuador for World Cup Qualifiers, Pareja confirmed The Athletic’s report that the midfielder will not play on Saturday following an outbreak of COVID-19 cases within the Ecuadorian national team. Mendez did not test positive, but his close contact with positive players prevented him from being chartered back to the United States in time for the first round.
Meanwhile, Pedro Gallese, who was with the Peruvian National team, did manage to charter a flight back to Orlando and is expected to be available for Saturday’s matchup.
Orlando City Starting Lineup 4-2-3-1: Pedro Gallese; Kyle Smith, Robin Jansson, Antonio Carlos, Ruan; Andres Perea, Junior Urso, Chris Mueller, Mauricio Pereyra, Nani (c); Daryl Dike.
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