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Orlando City confident heavy South American influence can help Lions reach playoffs in 2020

With a Colombian coach and five new South American additions, Orlando City brings a different look this season.

Orlando City defender Ruan handles the ball during preseason training. Photo by Julia Poe.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Orlando City’s morning training sessions sound different this season. Instructions are shouted out in Spanish, then translated, if necessary, for English and Portuguese speakers. Players shout encouragement in all three languages.

The diversity of this team is new, but it doesn’t change the way the players goof around as they warm up, knocking balls between each other’s legs, shoving each other in the sides at the end of a drill. Orlando City players — old and new — are embracing the way their varied backgrounds and increased South American flavor could help the team succeed.

The Orlando City roster now fields nine South American players, five of whom are new additions from the most recent offseason. In fact, besides their academy signings and draft picks, the Lions didn’t bring in any players for the 2020 season who weren’t from South America.

With a new Colombian coach, Orlando City has seen a distinctive shift this season. Coach Óscar Pareja said it fits a diverse city like Orlando. The change also fits a team like Orlando City, which is desperate for a change in the status quo and make the playoff for the first time as it enters its sixth MLS season.

As Pareja leads the team — which fields players from 12 different countries — in the preseason, he said the diversity offered by Orlando City will offer a unique opportunity to meld styles.

“I don’t know if in many other parts of the world that happens,” Pareja said. “We’re trying to show that we will get together with the same idea despite all of our nationalities and put the jersey first and know that we’re defending this club. We learn from each other. It is a neat experience for us.”

The South American style of football is noted for its fluidity, with a focus on possessing and moving the ball quickly between players. Although this style includes a heavy emphasis on the attack, Orlando City’s offseason additions come from all over the field, from Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese to Brazilian midfielder Júnior Urso.

To Urso, the addition of more Brazilian and South American players can only be a positive influence for the Lions.

“There’s something different about them,” Urso said through a translator. “They never give up on balls. It’s just something in their blood. To be honest, it not only helps the team, but it can also help individual players. When they’re feeling down, they bring them up because they never give up.”

Urso’s faith might sound mythical, or just like a proud countryman. But after spending the offseason training with a club in Buenos Aires, American striker Benji Michel agrees.

During a little more than a month in Brazil, Michel said he connected with a completely different type of football fandom.

“In Brazil, they worship soccer,” Michel said. “It’s like another god to them. I was very lucky to go over there and learn and get a better knowledge of the game.”

With Brazilian owners and the previous signing of Kaká, Brazilian influence has always been strong within Orlando City. That continued in the offseason as the team trusted a Brazilian side to train its youngest star.

After his rookie season, Michel wanted to use the offseason to challenge himself and build on a different aspect of his game. He approached vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi with the request, and Muzzi already had a plan in place — a stint with the team’s partner club, Athletico Paranaense.

Michel is known for his speed, which he used to slice through defense and blaze up sidelines throughout his rookie season. His time in Brazil, however, focused on his foot skills, helping him to hone his handling and get more clean touches on the ball.

To Michel, that push was perfect, adding to his technical game both physically and mentally.

“I feel like in Brazil a lot of guys are more technical and they use less physicality,” Michel said. “You have to think so much faster. Here, I do think a lot, but over there it’s a lot of small side soccer, a lot of thinking. Everything has a purpose to what they do.”

The influx of Brazilians added an extra layer of comfort for Ruan. The speedy defender is looking forward to tapping into the additional South American influence to add to his own performance on the pitch and form supportive friendships off it.

Ruan had followed Urso’s career for years and he was eager to meet him at the stadium during his first few days in Orlando. The two hit it off immediately, he said, and they’re often seen entering the pitch for morning training side-by-side. Ruan described Urso as a “very good friend to have” as he enters the 2020 season.

Ruan said he sees the team’s diversity as a strength.

“This diversity of having English, Portuguese and Spanish [speakers] on the team is actually making us stronger,” Ruan said through a translator. “We’re getting to help each other and be friendly with each other.”

The team hasn’t had enough time with Pareja to learn the detailed mechanics of his game plan for the season. But Urso said that in the first week, he was beginning to piece together Pareja’s style, which fits many South American soccer ideals — high-possession, fluid, quick to turn to goal.

That would be a turn from last season’s version of the Lions, who shored up their offense but often started games sluggishly, struggling to connect cohesively through the midfield and attack in the final third.

As the team hunts a first playoff berth — and pushes for a deep postseason run — its players welcome a shift in the Orlando City style of play.

“I think that the way we’re gonna play this season, it’s gonna be different,” Ruan said. “It’s going to be very helpful for the team.”

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