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3 things we learned from Orlando City’s 0-0 draw against Real Salt Lake

After the first game of the Oscar Pareja era in Orlando, here are three things — besides finishing — to take away from Saturday night’s draw.

Orlando City's Antonio Carlos and teammates defend the goal during the season opener against Real Salt Lake Saturday at Exploria Stadium. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City generated numerous chances during its home opener against Real Salt Lake — five on the statsheet, but three or four more times as many that went unrecorded — but settled for a 0-0 draw on Saturday.

The lack of finishing off nine shots was the obvious source of frustration for the Lions’ fans, players and coaches alike following the first game of the 2020 season. But there was plenty to digest from the first match of the Oscar Pareja era in Orlando. Here are three things — not related to finishing — we learned from Saturday’s match.

1. The heart was there

New coach Oscar Pareja entered the postgame news conference with a grin.

He was a bit hoarse from yelling over the cacophonous crowd and a bit disappointed with the draw. But mostly, Pareja was optimistic about the team’s performance during its first match together.

In particular, Pareja praised the heart of his team. The effort level was visible on the attacking end — the team fit comfortably into Pareja’s high press, with outside backs Ruan and João Moutinho torching up the flanks to add an extra layer of attack.

“We didn’t retreat,” Pareja said. “We didn’t feel like we needed to be sitting back. I felt that the team had been that protagonist. I saw a team that always had that initiative. We needed to walk out with more.”

But that heart was most visible in the team’s defensive effort. A high press naturally leaves a defense more vulnerable, forcing the whole team to track back in transition. Orlando City managed this challenge during its opening match, limiting Real Salt Lake to one shot on frame all night.

Even in the waning minutes of the match, as the Lions became visibly desperate to net a goal to reward the fans in attendance, their defensive structure didn’t waver.

2. Midfield vision begins to come together

The midfield was the greatest focus for the Lions in the offseason, both in roster acquisitions and in tactical shifts by Pareja. Saturday’s match offered the first look at the coach’s preferred lineup.

Pareja fielded a midfield anchored by Sebas Méndez in the middle, with Júnior Urso on his left wing and Mauricio Pereyra on his right. The trio served as an important connector for the Lions, breaking through lines to hold down the defense and ignite offensive plays.

Méndez in particular served as a linchpin in the gut of the field, leading the team with 98 touches and 72 passes. His sharpness in that central role — including 90.3% passing accuracy — provided clarity for the Lions whenever they transitioned from defense to attacking.

“Many times [Pareja] tells us, he says, ‘You are the heart of the team,’” Urso said. “I believe that the middle, we have to connect the defenders to attacking. I think it’s like this — the middle controls the game.”

Anchored by three players credited for their vision and athleticism, Orlando City maintained its high pressure with fluid passing through the gut of the field. When the Lions ceded possession, both Urso and Pereyra eagerly jumped into bully ball, quickly bodying opponents off the ball to avoid a counter-attack.

Although the team didn’t possess the ball for notably more time than Real Salt Lake — holding a slight edge at 51% possession — the trio of midfielders worked cohesively to turn possessions to goal quickly. Moving towards the box, all three midfielders utilized overlapping runs to set up their wingers and outside backs wide outside the box.

The position group also played with a particular freedom, bringing an infectious flair that felt almost playful at times. In the first half, for instance, Méndez turned a full maradona to dodge around a defender, earning a roar of appreciation from the fans.

To Pareja, that extra spark of creativity through the midfield set a promising standard for how the group will play this season.

“They understand that they are the ones that glue our team defensively and offensively,” Pareja said. “The miles, the energy, the effort that they put in that part of the field is very good and very healthy for our team. They gave us a lot of personality in that part of the pitch.”

3. Neither side full strength

With captain Nani suspended and designated player Dom Dwyer injured, the Lions understood their lineup for the home opener wasn’t a typical starting lineup. But Real Salt Lake was also far from full strength in this matchup, and any reaction to the home opener should be tempered.

RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman sat out the trip due to an injury. The visiting team also had three players who normally should be starters sitting on the bench for the opening whistle — forwards Corey Baird, Justin Meram and Giuseppe Rossi.

Baird hadn’t played a minute of the preseason, while both Meram and Rossi still weren’t at 100% fitness by the end of the preseason, according to coach Freddy Juarez. The trio made an entrance in the final 30 minutes — Baird in the 60th, Meram in the 70th and Rossi in the 78th — offering a closer look to a full-strength lineup from Real Salt Lake.

Although the Lions’ defensive organization was a source of pride for the team during its first outing together, the club needs to be tested by other teams with healthier rosters moving forward. 

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