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Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja pushes rewrite for Lions’ narrative, win

The coach hopes to instill his players with the confidence to be the protagonists of each game in the 2020 season.

Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja speaks with assistant coach Josema Bazan before a preseason training session. (Julia Poe/Pro Soccer USA)

Oscar Pareja sees Orlando City as a club whose story needs to be rewritten.

For five seasons, the club has struggled to find consistency, stuck perpetually in a cycle of hiring and firing coaches who never delivered the right answers. During its sixth season, the energy surrounding the fan base feels as if it has shifted, becoming more desperate than hopeful.

As the Lions’ newest coach, Pareja wants to change the culture. It goes beyond winning games, beyond making the playoffs or bringing home trophies. The coach’s goal runs deeper. For the first time in years, Pareja wants Orlando City to feel like the hero of its own story.

“For me, it’s important that the team feels that they are that protagonist, that they have that intention to be the important ones,” Pareja said. “There’s an energy when you have that confidence. It matters. I’m asking my players just to feel important in the games, that we’re not the team that is there waiting to be hit, but [we] are the ones that are having the initiative to go stronger.”

That word — “protagonist,” or “protagonista” in Spanish — is a regular feature in Pareja’s vocabulary when he describes his vision for Orlando City. It’s reflected in the style he is implementing for the Lions during the 2020 season.

Pareja’s style is the same as it was in FC Dallas or, more recently, Club Tijuana. He emphasizes purposeful possession that is always angled toward goal, resulting in a high-speed attack that moves the ball quickly through a high volume of passes.

This structure pushes outside backs high up the field, asking them to feature in the attack regularly through crosses into the box. But it also requires a rigorous level of organization on defense, which Pareja considers the cornerstone of his teams.

Although Pareja’s vision for the team is highly detailed, it always comes back to the core focus of creating a team that is confident in its ability to win every game. To players such as midfielder Júnior Urso, this mindset has been invigorating in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s season opener.

“I feel very good when I hear this word,” Urso said. “We all have to be protagonists, as a player and as a team. When we listen to the word, this makes us want to be the best ones on the pitch. The idea of being [the] protagonist is to be the one who organizes the actions of the game.”

Urso is one of nine additions to the roster acquired by Pareja and executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi during the offseason.

Those acquisitions embody Pareja’s sense of constantly improving each aspect of the team. Last year’s defense was a vast improvement for Orlando City, allowing the least goals in club history anchored by the dependable work of veteran keeper Brian Rowe.

But “better” wasn’t good enough for Pareja or Muzzi. So the pair signed Pedro Gallese, the starting Peruvian goalkeeper who could easily become one of top — if not the outright best — goalkeepers in MLS.

Additions such as Gallese and Urso have added a level of pedigree to the midfield and the defense. But regardless of history or perceived talent level, Pareja emphasizes competition, giving every player on the roster a chance to earn a starting position.

“To me, what I’ve seen is that he doesn’t care how much money you make, how old you are, how much experience you [have],” forward Benji Michel said. “If you’re good enough to play, and you’re able to beat out an experienced player, then you deserve to play. I think, for him, he wants to keep the best players on the field that will work for the team at all times.”

Forward Tesho Akindele noted an extra level of energy in each training session, which he thinks has been stirred up by the natural competition caused by the uncertainty of a new coach.

The preseason provided intense challenge for the team, with three-a-day training sessions during a 10-day stint in Cancún, Mexico. Midfielder Sebás Méndez said he participated in 53 preseason training sessions, providing time for the team to bond and also gain a clear understanding of Pareja’s expectations.

Across the roster, players describe the new coach as a strong communicator, capable of explaining his vision to provide clarity for every position group. This cohesive focus is something many players felt was missing in the past.

For players returning to the roster, Pareja’s presence is providing a spark entering the 2020 season.

“He seems to have lit a fire inside of me again,” designated player Dom Dwyer said. “The eyes don’t lie. When you look at his eyes, he has this burning desire. When he says something, he means what he says.”

Pareja’s model of thinking about soccer is informed by a variety of outside influences — his Christian faith, his study of mindfulness, his love of reading. Being close to God brings a freshness to his life, he says, and he uses mindfulness to balance himself, avoiding celebrating achievements or mourning losses too much.

Reading has a similar affect on the way Pareja views soccer. The coach often reads non-fiction books about history or science — he recently read “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink, weaving the book’s philosophies along with Bible scripture into the way he approached the preseason.

But Pareja also loves to read novels, finding strength in their stories. He sees molding a soccer team as the same task facing a writer — they both must tell a story.

During previous seasons, Pareja knows the story that has been told about Orlando City, one of always falling just a little bit short. He also knows the Lions — fans and players alike — have begun to believe that narrative, too.

This season is about teaching his players to define themselves through their style of play. If the Lions can do that, Pareja says, the rest will follow.

“I think one of the ways I can teach is to tell stories,” Pareja said. “In this sport, I think we’re connectors with people. I think we need not to doubt that we’re more or less than anyone else, but know that we have a special spot where we can connect to so many people. … The fans, the players, I want to give them confidence in the story that we are telling together.”

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