SANFORD, Fla. — When it comes to Orlando City midfielder Mauricio Pereyra, caution has always been the name of the game for Lions coach James O’Connor. But with the team’s postseason chances on the line, the coach decided to take a risk this past Saturday.
“It was a bit of a gamble from us to throw him in there,” O’Connor said of the decision to play Pereyra. “He’s someone who we want to get involved. He deserves a lot of praise for getting through 45 minutes and you can see his quality. It was very encouraging to see his appetite to get on the ball and affect play.”
The road to 90 full minutes of play has been arduous since Pereyra first arrived in Orlando. First, it was a crammed catch-up for an entire missed preseason. Then, O’Connor sent him to the sidelines for two weeks when the midfielder suffered a lower body injury during his first start against Atlanta.
Pereyra was only back in full-contact training for two days leading up to the New England game. He kept assuring his coach his body felt ready for the challenge and O’Connor decided he had to trust his newest player.
The decision paid off — Pereyra created five chances, picking up his first assist in purple with a well-placed cross for Nani’s first goal. Even with limited playing time, Pereyra has become a dependable presence on the field for his teammates.
“We know he has a lot of quality to bring to the team, a lot of experience,” Nani said. “I hope he can get on his best legs as fast as possible because he’s showed already he’s a player we can count on.”
Saturday’s game marked the first time Pereyra rounded out a midfield trio of Cristian Higuita and Carlos Ascues, arguably the strongest combination for the Lions. One of the simplest strengths of this midfield group comes from the lack of language barrier. All three are native Spanish speakers, and Ascues said the trio’s shared language added another layer of comfort in their communication.
“I think we played really good football together,” Pereyra said. “We made a lot of combinations and created a lot of chances together. This is football, so of course we want to score more goals and make more assists. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, so we will keep working for the next game.”
Ascues also pointed to Pereyra’s ability to slip inside balls past the opposing backline as one of his most valuable assets for the team. Pereyra has attempted these challenging through balls since his first game for the Lions.
Even if every run doesn’t result in a shot or a pass into the box, the practice of consistently pushing passes past the backline stretches out opposing defenses. Due to his ability to force teams to respect the passing connection from the midfield to strikers streaking up the flank, Orlando City’s spacing is better when Pereyra is on the pitch.
Pereyra credited the style of MLS to his increased comfort on the ball. He said that in past leagues, he would look to pass immediately, building fluid possession through quick, short passes. In MLS, however, he feels less on-ball pressure, offering the midfielder a greater opportunity to dribble with the ball and create with his own feet.
“You have more time with the ball,” Pereyra said. “This is good for my position because normally I try to play only one or two touches because I get so much pressing, but here usually I am more free. It depends on what part of the pitch I’m on, but it’s good for my position because it’s so much more open room to work with.”
Although Pereyra said he still doesn’t feel quite 100% in his physical fitness, he said he feels fully healed from his injury heading into this weekend’s game against Houston. As the midfielder continues to build up fitness so he can play a full 90 minutes, he said he expects to integrate more fluidly with the team.
Off the pitch, the greatest comfort for Pereyra has been the arrival of his family, which moved from Krasnodar, Russia, where he previously played, to to Orlando two weeks ago. Although the change in weather has been a challenge as Pereyra works to get in shape, he now enjoys it with his family, spending off days at the pool with his two sons.
“They have more things to do here than in Russia,” Pereyra said with a laugh. “My sons are happy, my wife is happy, and that’s what is most important to me.”