Pareja Shifts Focus to Loons After LAFC Triumph

Orlando City was the story of MLS after toppling Supporters’ Shield holders LAFC in Friday night’s MLS is Back Tournament Quarterfinal. 

But for the Lions to take home silverware, there are two more games left to win. First up: Minnesota United (Thursday, 8 pm EST, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes).

“When I see them taking that decision to celebrate that [LAFC] match, I think it’s fantastic, but knowing that the day after, they’re going to take the next responsibility which is to prepare and train well for the next game,” said Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja at Monday’s match week press conference. “It’s the beauty of the game, you win, you celebrate and sometimes you don’t win and you need to learn other things. But the next day is the next opportunity, and the next, and the next and this group is learning day-by-day.”

The Lions returned to training on Monday night, the focus fully turned to Minnesota, who remains undefeated in 2020 after blowing out San Jose 4-1 in their quarterfinal game. Pareja expects a tough fight from the Loons.

“I think Minnesota last year found the way to get in much better quality, in terms of results and the product of their soccer,” Pareja said. “What they have done here in the tournament, as well, has been very good. It’s a team that is very well-organized.”

Even without reigning MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, who opted out of the tournament with a pre-existing injury, Minnesota have excelled defensively at MLS is Back, conceding five goals through five matches. As he and his fellow attackers prepare for the match, Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele acknowledges how tough it can be to put goals past the Loons.

“It’s hard to find gaps,” said Akindele. “I think especially right in front of them, they have center backs that like to step up and kind of get into the back of the forward and they have [defensive midfielder] Ozzie Alonso sitting there and protecting them, so I think it might be difficult for us to find space right in front of them. Instead maybe we go wide, maybe we go in behind and then if that opens them up then we’ll have some space in behind, but I think we’ll need to look out wide and in behind first.”

To its credit, Orlando City has been among the league’s elite defensively this year as well, holding opponents to just four goals in the tournament. The Lions were especially good against LAFC, holding the league’s best attack without a single shot in the first half. Minnesota’s attack had gone in fits and spurts before exploding for four goals against San Jose, with all four tallies coming from different players.

“There isn’t one specific player [we’re focused on]. We know that Minnesota United has excellent players, especially the wingers,” said Orlando City defender Antonio Carlos, who Akindele called an “MLS All-Star level” center back. “We’ve been talking about what we’re going to do to stop their wingers and also neutralize their midfield.”

All three men reiterated that no matter the nuances of the matchup, they’ll be more than ready on a mental level. 

“We know that it’s going to be a tough game, they fight hard just like we do and they’re a good opponent, but this has been great for our self-confidence so far,” said Antonio Carlos. “We’re playing well and since the very beginning we said that we would do everything in our power to win this competition, and that’s what we’re doing.”