Since arriving in Orlando in December, Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja has repeatedly stressed one thing - the importance of building a strong culture.
While it took longer than we all would have hoped to see that very culture come to fruition after the COVID-19 pandemic put the season on hold, the last week has been a true indicator of what Pareja wishes to build here in The City Beautiful.
Now two matches into the MLS is Back Tournament, Orlando City sits atop Group A with a perfect six-point total in their opening two fixtures, finding the back of the net five times while conceding just twice, and their ticket to the knockouts already punched. With a win or draw in their final match of group play on Monday night against Philadelphia, the Lions would lock up the top spot in Group A heading into the knockout stage of the tournament.
These results may have come as a surprise to many others that follow Major League Soccer, with few projecting the Lions to see action outside of their three group stage matches in the competition. Frankly, they have surprised just about everyone but themselves.
“Our team has just been working hard throughout the whole quarantine period. We knew it was going to be a mental battle for every team and that if we really pushed ourselves and prepared ourselves throughout the quarantine that coming back, we’d be ready for this,’ Lions’ forward Tesho Akindele said of the group’s work leading into the tournament.
“I think that it’s more what we did to prepare than what’s happening in the bubble and right now we’re just maintaining it and all of that hard work before and the maintenance now is paying off.”
Preparation is a word we often hear thrown around in regards to Pareja and his staff. The players frequently describe the coaches as extremely detail-oriented, with the staff providing them with all the tools they could potentially need to succeed in regards to any obstacle.
Another word is confidence, something Pareja himself hones in on time and time again with his players. The level of belief that we heard discussed leading into the tournament has been evident thus far, with the Lions showcasing a heightened level of confidence on all sides of the pitch.
“Our commitment as coaches is to provide a good scenario for the players where they can develop and create training sessions where the players don’t just understand and believe the model or idea of the game that we want to play, but the potential that they can have under our guidance,” Pareja said of the group’s preparations.
“The most important thing is that they feel that the job is going to be done by themselves on the field and let them express the best of their qualities there. We put ourselves, always, as the tools for them to use and believe in their own capacity to play this game. That is the base of our principles and we have the privilege to have a great group of players who have the willingness to do it and work. Just seeing them work everyday, their willingness to do the right thing, that provides us as coaches as well with a lot of confidence.”
That confidence in each other in regards to the players and staff is a marquee pillar of the exact culture Pareja has worked to integrate here in Orlando, with its payoffs showing in the last week.
Amongst the group, everyone has a defined role and each player knows that they have been provided the tools to succeed in it.
There is still work to be done and hopefully a lot of soccer to be played, but the work that Pareja and his staff has put in throughout this time has finally been showcased and everyone in their camp has reason to believe that it’s only going to get better from here.
“I think the culture that he’s brought in all-in-all is bringing us that confidence and belief that we can actually do something special. We have such a good group and I think that Oscar and his whole coaching staff is extremely honed in on what they’re trying to do,’ forward Chris Mueller told MLS The Kickaround Live.
“They have an identity, they know what they want to implement and that their ideas are good and they know, with good players who are focused and bought into the system, that we can be successful here in Orlando and that’s what we’re showing.”