Oscar Pareja’s first year in Orlando was a resounding success by any measure.
The final of the MLS is Back Tournament. A fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The club’s first-ever MLS Cup Playoffs game, at home, won in perhaps the most memorable fashion in the league’s history.
Is that enough for Papi? Not even close.
“Last year we had a lot of joy in achieving many objectives,” said Pareja at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, “but at the same time we understand that we were short on the final prize in the league, something we want so bad to give to the community and to the Club. With the energy the boys have, the desire, the dreams and the commitment that we all have with this Club, we’re expecting...[to] just keep going and keep competing.”
Orlando City won’t be sneaking up on anyone in 2021. The Lions were picked to reach the playoffs by every analyst in MLSSoccer.com’s preseason preview and are expected to be top contenders for MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and Leagues Cup, a tournament with Liga MX in which Orlando will compete for the first time this summer.
For Pareja, though, the goals have not differed.
“Despite that it was a surprise for many, thinking that we could fight for trophies or fight for the first places, our approach hasn’t changed. I think it’s the commitment and the responsibility that a coach has to have with his players and the Club that we represent.
“You won’t hear from me any other objective than win. That’s the final one, the ultimate goal, for any team that I play with or defend or am involved with, is just to ask the players to give the max and to be able to provide to our supporters the final objective, which is winning.”
Orlando City wrapped up preseason last weekend with a 3-2 win over Minnesota United and has spent this week deep in preparation for the season opener against Atlanta United, presented by Orlando Health (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, UniMás/TUDN/Twitter). The Lions will be without midfield fulcrum Mauricio Pereyra, who is suspended for the first two games of the season.
“It’s not an easy thing to lose any player, especially in the first game of the season,” said Pareja, “but we knew...that Mauricio couldn’t play in the first two [games], and we’ve prepared the team without him, trying to see some possibilities that may adjust our team to the same model that we had, and also some variations that we have tried during the offseason planning and during this preseason.”
Even with his No. 10 sidelined, Pareja has the implicit trust of his roster.
“Oscar is an amazing guy,” said new striker Alexandre Pato. “When you have some question or maybe a problem, he comes to you and he speaks to you, he explains to you everything you want to know. So when I think when the coach has this feeling with the players, that’s the best way to get something very special...He pushes every player, old or young. Every player is happy to have him in this Club."