Pareja, Lions Look for Group Stage Clean Sweep

Orlando City continued their torrid training regimen on Friday, preparing for Monday’s match against the Philadelphia Union that will decide who tops Group A in the MLS is Back Tournament. 

With one fewer day between games than a normal week, head coach Oscar Pareja and his staff have kept noses to grindstones, getting the Lions on track to face an opponent that, like Orlando, has yet to drop points since the league’s return.

“The group has been training normally...learning, progressing, and trying to be a better team every day,” said Pareja after Friday’s session. “The group has been concentrating on the things we have done well, but also the things we need to improve, knowing that the next match is very important as well. The objective [is to] keep adding [regular season] points but at the same time have the opportunity to take the next step for what is coming in the tournament.”

That next step could include a perfect nine points in three games in the group stage, a considerable feat for an Orlando City side that many observers gave little shot coming into the tournament. The Lions have received a breakout performance from third-year winger Chris Mueller, who has bagged three goals in two games, while getting solid games from every member of the squad through the first two outings. Asked what he’s done to increase the group’s confidence, Pareja turned it around and credited his players.

“Our commitment is to provide a good scenario for the players where they can develop, to create training sessions where players not just understand and believe in...the idea of the game we want to play, but the potential that they can have on our guidance,” Pareja said. “That is the base of our principles as coaches, and we have the privilege to have a great group of players who have the willingness to do it and work.

“We are the ones who are growing in confidence with them, seeing them work every day, their willingness to do the right things, that provides us as coaches a lot of confidence to continue.”

Philadelphia is coming off a 2-1 victory over expansion club Inter Miami on Tuesday night, the winner coming on a full-field counter finished by 15-goal striker Kacper Przybylko. The Union have conceded just once in their first two games and are coming off a playoff appearance in 2019.

The two teams were not even planning to face each other until about a week ago, when Nashville SC was forced to drop out of the tournament due to a number of positive COVID-19 tests. This wasn’t a problem for Pareja, though, who faced Jim Curtin’s side numerous times over his years with FC Dallas.

“I’ve known Jim for years, I know about his capacity and also his respect for the game and his professionalism, and I don’t have any doubt that he transmits that to his players,” said Pareja as he sized up Philly’s team. “I think the most challenging things from them are probably the organization that they have as a group, and also they have energy, because they’re a young group too. That will need to be faced with the same level of energy and with the same level of concentration.”

Due to a stronger goal differential, Orlando City will be awarded Group A with either a win or a draw. The game will also count towards the 2020 MLS regular season standings. Watch the Lions go for the top slot in the group on Monday, July 20 at 8 pm EST on TUDN USA and streaming live on Twitter.