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Orlando City coach Óscar Pareja embraces challenge of building winning team

The coach said his team will be “aggressive” offensively as it works to bring joy to the fanbase after five losing seasons.

Orlando City executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, left, introduces its new Lions coach Óscar Pareja during a press conference at Exploria Stadium Thursday. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. — New Orlando City coach Óscar Pareja said he searches for the same three things whenever he takes on a new team — character, identity and balance.

During his first press conference in Orlando, most of Pareja’s promises for the Lions’ future hinged on similar intangibles. But his vision for the final product on the field is set.

“We would like to have an attacking team, all the time,” Pareja said. “We can be aggressive. We can score a lot of goals. We can create a team that can be in that offensive mind all the time.”

That aggressive style fulfills what Orlando City executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi was searching for at the end of the 2019 season. Muzzi failed to find common ground with former coach James O’Connor throughout the course of the team’s fifth-straight losing season.

Now, reunited with his former coaching partner of five years from FC Dallas, Muzzi said Pareja is the person who will lead Orlando City to the playoffs for the first time in club history.

“Why is he different? That’s a question that only time can answer,” Muzzi said. “I know the guy, I know the work, I know what he can bring to this club. Time will show everybody why he’s here.”

Pareja will now attempt to do something that no Orlando City coach has done before — keep his job. The Lions have yet to retain a coach for two full seasons. However, the new coach said that he wasn’t intimidated or concerned by the club’s history of firing coaches midseason.

Part of that confidence comes from Pareja’s extensive history with Muzzi, who introduced the new coach as “a great person and a guy who I can say is my friend.” But it also comes from Pareja’s understanding of the expectations placed on coaches.

“We are the ones who can make ourselves stay in the clubs or not with work and with the results,” Pareja said. “It’s becoming more normal around the world. People are very urgent to get results. We all are very focused on trophies. The dynamic of hiring and firing coaches is very normal and I think we are all used to it so it’s not a concern at all.”

After he parted ways with Club Tijuana in Liga MX last week, Pareja said that he fielded other offers for head coaching positions. He said that he chose Orlando City for the potential he sees in the club. Pareja said that he is confident in the current roster, referencing the balance of veteran star power in Nani and young talent such as Benji Michel.

Pareja and Muzzi also made it clear they are not looking to rush any player signings as they begin to fill the roster together.

“I would like to bring the right player, not any [player] and not just because he’s a good player, and then he’s the one,” Pareja said. “I would like to identify what is the correct player who needs to be part of this community, this team and this model of playing. It’s not just signing players because we would like to show a face to the fans. I would like to be accurate with that.”

Pareja often uses the same phrase to describe the identity that he hopes to forge in Orlando City. He wants the team to be “los protagonistas” — the protagonists of their game.

That would be a change for the Lions, who have rarely been the heroes of their own seasons in recent years. The 2019 season stands as the most recent and bitter reminder, when playoff chances fell out of reach in a winless skid characterized by self-imposed blunders.

When he came to Orlando, Pareja said he understood the frustration and disappointment from the fans that he inherited. He said that he initially saw that passion when he watched the team’s inaugural game in 2015, taking away a memory of a connected, intense fan base.

In his first year with the team, Pareja hopes to create a product that will return that same level of excitement to the supporters.

“I believe in this roster despite the frustration that the fans have on not making the playoffs,” Pareja said. “The community is here. I won’t forget that. It’s exciting. Hopefully, we can give them a lot of joy.”

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