There is no subtle or tactful way to put this, so let’s not even pretend there is.
With all due respect to brand-new Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja, there is but one goal and one goal only.
Let me repeat that:
There is no gray area here.
Nothing else matters except …
Unlike most new professional coaches taking over one of the must unsuccessful franchises in the league, Pareja regrettably gets no honeymoon whatsoever. He goes straight from the wedding ceremony to the loading docks where he is expected to lift the enormous burden of never making the playoffs off Orlando City’s hunched, slouched, slumped shoulders.
Let us not kid ourselves any longer, Orlando City has frittered away all of the goodwill it built up in its early years. After so much hype and hoopla when they joined MLS in 2015, the Lions have been arguably the worst franchise in the league ever since. If you’re scoring at home, every team in MLS — except Orlando City and first-year expansion franchise FC Cincinnati last season — has made the playoffs in the five seasons the Lions have been in the league.
That’s right, every team in the league has made the playoffs.
Except Orlando City.
Teams that joined MLS at the same time or afterward (see NYCFC, Atlanta United, etc.) have blown by Orlando City so fast that the Lions must be suffering from a severe case of wind shear. The heart punch for Orlando City supporters came last year when beloved former Orlando City coach Adrian Heath made the playoffs with Minnesota United — a franchise that joined the league two years after the Lions did.
“There is enough talent on this roster to fight for every point,” Pareja says. “As a coach, it is our responsibility to believe and to give confidence to the players … to prove we are good.”
At this point in the franchise’s history, there is only way to prove your worth to Orlando City’s frustrated fans.
Somehow, someway, Pareja must find a way to guide Orlando City into the 2020 postseason. This is absolutely, positively the only way to rejuvenate a beleaguered fan base. It’s not just coincidence that Orlando City’s attendance has dropped every single season that the Lions have failed to qualify for the playoffs. In the inaugural season, when the team was playing in the Citrus Bowl, Orlando City drew 32,847 fans per game, followed by average attendance figures of 31,324 in 2016, 25,028 (the first year in the new stadium) in 2017, 23,866 in 2018 and then 22,761 last season.
What’s baffling to so many MLS insiders is: Why does Orlando City keep getting worse instead of better? We’ve been through five years, four coaches and multiple roster rebuilds and yet the Lions have continued to sink southward down the Eastern Conference table. They finished seventh in the conference in their first year, eighth the second year, then 10th, 11th and 11th.
Coach James O’Connor was fired after last season just as Heath and Jason Kreis were before him. And Luiz Muzzi, Orlando City’s executive vice president of soccer operations, made it very clear why O’Connor lost his job.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t reach our goal of making the playoffs,” Muzzi said. “It’s professional sports and you’re measured by results.”
Translation: It’s all about the playoffs.
“I think that we’re in a better position to get a lot of things done,” Muzzi says now. “But it’s a process, It’s not overnight. There were lots of things that I saw when I came in; there was a plan, but we just couldn’t do it right away. There’s things that are in the works, and I think that we’re going to see in the long run that those things will hopefully be successful.”
Muzzi is asking fans to “be patient” and says building a championship team doesn’t happen “overnight.” In most sports and with most teams, who would argue? In basketball and football, it is the prudent approach to give a new coach the time to implement his system and build his roster, but we’ve seen that soccer is different. There is an organizational and institutional impatience in the sport that I think has been detrimental to Orlando City.
Maybe Orlando City’s front-office impatience and impetuousness stems from Atlanta United winning the MLS Cup in only its second year of existence. Whatever the case, there’s no question that Orlando City’s ownership, coaches and players are on edge.
“Of course we feel it,” midfielder Mauricio Pereyra says of Orlando City’s playoff drought. “We need to change this.”
Adds defender Robin Jansson: “This club needs success. I’m ready to do everything in my power to help this team make the playoffs.”
That’s exactly what we want to hear.
In fact, it’s the only thing we want to hear.
This team and this town know what needs to be accomplished: