KISSIMMEE, Fla. — For more than 30 years, a slender red thread has almost always circled the right wrist of Orlando City coach Óscar Pareja.
His wife, Sandra, tied on the thread for the first time when he was 15. They were just kids at the time, young and in love, unsure of where life would take them outside of Medellin, Colombia.
In the decades since, they have traveled together from Colombia to New England to Dallas and Mexico and now, finally, Orlando. They’ve raised children and moved them into their college dorms. Pareja has ended one career and started another.
Now, Pareja still wears a red thread every day, paired with a leather bracelet decorated in the colors of the Colombian flag. That first thread wore out decades ago, but Sandra simply tied on another and another after that.
They currently face a familiar challenge of long distance as she splits time between their homes in Dallas and Orlando. But a quick glance to his wrist serves as a reminder to the coach — of where he came from, and the people who matter the most.
“It’s been meaningful for me, and for her too,” Pareja said. “We are not always together in [the] same place, but we [have] always been together in this way.”
Loyalty is an important word for Pareja. He married his childhood sweetheart, and he still counts the boys he grew up with in Medellin as his closest friends.
That dependability extends onto the soccer pitch. Since he first became a head coach in 2012, Pareja has found a fit with assistant coaches Fabian and Josema Bazan, bringing them from FC Dallas to Club Tijuana and now to Orlando City. His return to MLS was brought on by a similar desire, as he looked to reunite with Orlando City executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, who he worked with for six years in Dallas.
For Pareja, this pattern comes from a simple principle — when he finds good people, he doesn’t let them go.
“It’s something particular to me that I believed throughout my life,” Pareja said. “The people who work with me work with me forever.”
In the months following the club’s announcement it hired Pareja as the new coach, Muzzi has been open with his praise for Pareja’s abilities on and off the pitch. Although he’s soft spoken, Pareja made clear those feelings run both ways. The pair spent years together molding FC Dallas from the ground up, developing an academy system that became the model for the league and transforming the club into a winning environment.
Before coming to Orlando, Pareja felt confident in their ability to build together through a shared vision of how an ideal team should look. After Muzzi’s first full season in Orlando, Pareja also trusted his word — if the executive vice president said he saw Pareja as an apt fit for Orlando City, he believed it.
“It’s important that relation you have with people, especially when you spent many years with them,” Pareja said. “With Luiz, we’ve known each other for many years. We’ve had many moments together, some with joy and others with difficulties. That makes our relationship stronger. He knows me and I know him and I think we’re very comfortable in the way we do things.”
When Pareja joined the Lions, it was a given that Fabian and Josema Bazan would follow as well. The trio is now in its sixth year of working together, moving as a unit from MLS to Liga MX and back again. He believes each additional season continues to build their coaching relationship.
The trust Pareja feels with his assistants is evident every morning at training. As the strength and conditioning specialist, Fabian will typically begin each morning, setting up a series of exercises and stretches to prepare the team. During this time, Pareja comfortably steps aside to let Fabian work — speaking easily with Josema, hopping into rondos with his players, sometimes kicking up a ball to juggle.
He similarly trusts day-to-day tactical focuses to Josema, and his assistant coach will lead meetings and work one-on-one with individual players.
Forward Tesho Akindele first noted this as a trademark of Pareja’s coaching style when he played with FC Dallas. Pareja is still firmly at the helm of the team, Akindele said, but his handoff of duties to his coaching staff feels seamless. The forward said they create a balance with one another — Pareja is known for his calculated and intense demeanor, while Josema and Fabian help inject training sessions with humor.
Most important, Akindele has never seen the coach question his assistants, instead communicating with them constantly and allowing them to lead in their own areas.
“He puts good people around him and then he lets them do their thing,” Akindele said of Pareja. “He trusts that they’re smart, capable people, they’re going to take care of their business, and I think they do.”
Pareja is known for transforming clubs — first Colorado, then FC Dallas. But he doesn’t put much stock in changing himself.
After a full preseason with his longtime coach, Akindele echoed this, saying Pareja’s style and presence felt the same as he had two seasons ago in Dallas.
This doesn’t mean he’s opposed to learning. Pareja is an eager reader, an avid student of the game of soccer as well as his Christian faith and the practice of mindfulness. But the core of who Pareja is — his loved ones, his ideals — remain steadfast, even as he manages yet another transition into a new club.
“I don’t change much,” Pareja said. “I really believe that when you are connected with people with the good and the bad things — because we’re not perfect — and you accept each other and you make that connection, you have a good chance to succeed. You always will find better things in new people, but for me the connections with the people that I’ve always [known] is most important.”