KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Although his plan to revive Orlando City includes a high-scoring offense, coach Óscar Pareja believes the team will find success this season by building from the back line.
When he coached FC Dallas, Pareja’s teams typically finished among the top three defensive sides in the league and he carried that focus to Orlando. As he builds his style with the Lions, the coach continues to focus on the backline, which he said will create a base of stability for the rest of the team.
“If you are organized and if you are a strong defending, you have a great option to win the game, but that doesn’t make you a defensive team,” Pareja said. “We would like to be protagonists of the game and … our teams would like to have possession with purpose and be offensive and create chances and score goals. But sometimes being so romantic with the game, it just allows you to forget that you need to organize and defend.”
Orlando City’s defensive focus began in the offseason, as the team added Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese as its biggest name signing ahead of the 2020 season. With the addition of two centerbacks — Rodrigo Schlegel and Antônio Carlos — the central core of the defense will have a different look this season.
The group will look to continue to improve after a 2019 season of improvement for the defense. After ceding a league-worst 74 goals in 2018, the Lions cut that number to 52 goals allowed last year, setting a club record for the least goals allowed in a season.
But that improvement still wasn’t enough to finish with a positive goal differential. The Lions closed the season at -8 after ceding five goals in the season finale. Although the team often shut down opponents to minimize their chances on goal, the Lions often allowed easy goals in the closing 15 minutes during a small slip in focus.
“We all knew that last year we dropped some easy points away in home,” defender Alex De John. “I think that this year, you know, we’ve definitely got to hone in on closing games out and Óscar has been very adamant about that.”
Schlegel describes Pareja’s approach as being rooted in defensive basics. His style is inherently high-pressure and aggressive — outside backs are required to press high up the pitch when the Lions are on the attack, and Pareja encourages the centerbacks to pressure as well.
This high-press structure requires the defenders to maintain focus to ward off a counter-attack, and Schlegel said this calls for a higher attention to marking. To stay organized in this system, the team will rely on centerback Robin Jansson to step up as the veteran marshal of the back line.
After joining the Lions last season, Jansson became one of the core starters of the Orlando City defense. This year, his teammates see him as a leader, both in his communication and in his physical style of play.
“You can see he’s just a big presence no matter what,” De John said. “He’s vocal, good in the air, good on the ball. … He’s definitely one of the leaders on the team. Anytime he’s on the pitch, everybody can look up to him and look forward to him to look for advice.”
The defenders also hold hopes of finding the back of the net themselves throughout this year. Carlos said Pareja is currently molding set pieces to isolate the centerbacks for opportunities to score, particularly using the trio’s height as an advantage.
All three centerbacks provide looming statures in the box for these set pieces — Schlegel is 5-foot-11, Jansson stands at 6-foot-1 and Carlos is the tallest at 6-foot-3. Although central defenders don’t always find the scoresheet, Carlos said he’s eager to net a goal or two at Exploria Stadium this season.
“I also like to score goals,” Carlos said. “I’m very competitive. I don’t like losing. I believe that myself, Robin and Rodrigo will help a lot when attacking.”
This season will create plenty of competition along the backline, especially for outside backs such as João Moutinho and Kamal Miller who are still jockeying for starting positions. But regardless of the lineup starting on defense for the Lions, Pareja’s expectation is for the unit to maintain the same level of organization.
For new additions and returning players alike, the defensive unit feels Pareja’s emphasis has set an important tone for the 2020 season.
“I think the details that he is putting out are great,” Jansson said. “Even when we are attacking he is on the defenders to be in the preventive attacking, to be ready and not just stand back there and wait for the ball to get back to our field. It’s a lot of new things from his side and I think that’s going to help us develop the team.”