A record 72 points in 2019. International players up and down the roster. 15 goals in four games, seven from Diego Rossi alone, all without reigning MVP Carlos Vela.
The numbers speak for themselves on LAFC, and it’s no surprise that national observers have crowned them the team to beat in this tournament. 538’s algorithm gives them a 32% chance to take home the trophy, with NYCFC coming next at a paltry 14%.
Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja will be well aware of LAFC’s quality. But Pareja has a team that’s played arguably the best soccer in its history over the past few weeks, and his Lions have a few tricks up their sleeve as well.
“LAFC obviously have a process that has a couple of years already and players who have been brought in to do that, knowing the investment and all those things and we respect that. But at the same time, we have confidence in what we do,” Pareja said at Orlando City’s pre-match press conference this week. “We understand the challenge, every team has a different one. In this case with LA, they obviously have very good numbers offensively that we would like to neutralize. We’d like to have our ways too to hurt them, but we’re aware, and the confidence from Pedro [Gallese] to our forwards is the same, trying to be solid and trying to play our game.”
Orlando City have conceded just three goals so far in this tournament, with goalkeeper Gallese standing on his head to neutralize fellow quarterfinalist NYCFC in Orlando’s 3-1 group stage win. Another key has been the play of defensive midfielder Uri Rosell, who has overcome two years of fitness struggles to emerge as a key piece in the Lions’ starting XI.
“Uri had a phenomenal preseason in the time that we were off and doing individual jobs, I have to highlight his devotion to the work and those things pay off,” said Pareja. “It’s a glue guy, it’s always trying to get connections within the group on and off the field and that’s showing in the games. That chemistry that he’s creating with his teammates and with the model of the game is important for us.”
Rosell, who won an MLS Cup with Sporting Kansas City in 2013, was out of contract after the 2019 season. When Orlando City offered him the chance to return, the Catalan jumped at it.
“I feel like now things have changed and we’re getting where we wanted to be,” Rosell said.
“One of the things that I resigned here for another year in my contract was because I knew that we would do much better. We had a lot of potential that we didn’t explore and now I feel like I made the right decision staying one more year here because I know a lot of good things will come.
“We already saw that there’s some change in the way we play, the way we press, the confidence in our guys and also the structure with Orlando CIty building a new training facility. With all of these things, I felt like we could do much better than what we did and now we’re doing it and hopefully we can continue doing that for a long period of time because good things will come for sure.”
Rosell has been deployed as a No. 6 in Orlando City’s three-man midfield, with either Júnior Urso or Sebas Méndez as the No. 8 and Mauricio Pereyra as the No. 10. The latter two will often venture forward to create overloads and provide chances for the Lions’ front three. But, as Rosell notes, Pareja has stressed balance and the team has executed thus far.
“Our midfielders move a lot, all the players know their role attacking, but also defensively and I think that’s one of the things that we improved from last year,” he said. “When we’re attacking we are in a better position to recover the ball when we lose it and I think that’s one of the keys that when we get the ball back, we can play again.”
Pareja’s philosophy and identity have guided Orlando City to this point. And the manager sounds pretty confident that his Lions can take it to LAFC.
“LAFC has had a lot of work on their process the last couple years and you have to respect that, but we’re confident,” he said. “We have ourselves, we have this group of players who are committed to doing the right things and I know LA has to do a bunch of good things in order to get a result and we know that we have to do the same. It’s going to be a very good match."