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Orlando City opens first training of preseason hungry, focused on playoffs

New coach Óscar Pareja set high expectations early as the Lions kicked off preseason training on Monday.

Orlando City forward Chris Mueller warms during the Lions' first preseason training of the year on Monday in Kissimmee. (Julia Poe/Pro Soccer USA)

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Orlando City broke in its new training facilities on Monday with the first workout under coach Óscar Pareja, ushering in a new year and new era for the Lions.

For Pareja, the process of forming a team during the next few weeks feels familiar. This is the fourth time the coach has taken over a new club in less than a decade, starting with his first head coaching position with the Colorado Rapids in 2012.

The coach said he entered this first week of training with the goal of building a foundation of chemistry for the team, which added eight new players during the offseason.

“The first part is to be aware of where we are,” Pareja said. “I think everybody has to do that, to be a piece of the puzzle. Second, I want everyone to visualize where we can get. The players especially, they need to know what is going to be the path. [If] at least we can visualize it, at least we can see it and explain with clarity what the objectives are, I think it’s a good foundation to start.”

As he enters his fourth MLS season with the Lions, striker Dom Dwyer is looking to erase the memories a frustrating 2019 season. The designated player has struggled to find his footing since returning to Orlando.

He scored a team-high 13 goals in 2018, but he suffered through a shooting slump and injury issues last year, scoring only seven goals off 66 shots. 

After the team failed to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, Dwyer said he was disappointed in his performance. He was swept up in trade rumors throughout the offseason — most notably getting linked to Minnesota United — and dismissed many of them with jokes on social media.

Entering the preseason — and the final year of his contract — the striker said he’s looking for a redemptive performance in 2020.

“I think I’ve got a point to prove,” Dwyer said. “I’ve got to show everyone that I need to be on the field and I can help the squad grow and get to where it needs to get to. This year is very much about the team and about what we do and what we can achieve. I think it’s team first. That’s the way to breed success.”

While Dwyer struggled to find the net in 2019, striker Tesho Akindele stepped up into the role of secondary goal-scorer. After netting 10 goals, Akindele said he’s entering the 2020 season with a confidence that has only been bolstered by a reunion with Pareja.

The coach drafted Akindele in 2014, taking a relatively unknown Division II forward with the No. 6 pick in the MLS SuperDraft for FC Dallas. Akindele was struck by the unique situation — few players and coaches move from one professional team to another together.

Akindele used his experience with Pareja to prepare himself and his teammates for their first training sessions with the new coach.

“I would say the main thing [to expect] is intensity,” Akindele said. “He’s a very intense person on and off the field. He’s gonna demand competitive attitude all day, every day in training. We’ll need to be ready to be intense and bring that right away.”

As promised, Pareja delivered that intensity before the first whistle of training on Monday, setting his expectations high to start the season. Since the firing of former coach James O’Connor, executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi and the Orlando City front office has emphasized the Lions must make the playoffs this year.

But to Pareja, qualifying for the postseason is only the first goal for the team. 

“This is my philosophy — I think when you aim average, then you may have the risk to be correct,” Pareja said. “For me, that’s not enough. I think we all have the capacity to aim high and see if we can make it. To put this team as a protagonist of the tournament is our first objective.”

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