ORLANDO, Fla. — This is a different Mauricio Pereyra.
This is one who has finally adapted to life in the United States and Orlando, one who finally feels fit to contribute to an Orlando City team desperately trying to make the playoffs for the first time.
After arriving in the middle of last season from Russia, Pereyra has a full preseason under him to get in playing shape and is ready to pull the strings in midfield for coach Óscar Pareja.
“Last year, it was difficult for me getting in good shape. I came without a preseason,” Pereyra said. “Now the most important [thing] is I [finished] without a serious injury, and now I’m in good condition to start the season.”
During just six games last season with five starts, he tallied three assists. But there could have been more. There were several instances during which Pereyra made a pass that would cut through the lines of an opposing defense, but a Lions attacker would not be there on the receiving end.
It made for frustrating moments, but it was all a part of adapting to a new country, city and team. Prior to arriving in Orlando, Pereyra spent seven years at FC Krasnodar in the Russian Premier League. He made more than 200 appearances for the club. Pereyra adjusted to life in Russia. At first, it was hard for him to acclimate himself to Orlando, joining a new team in the middle of the season.
“It was a difficult experience for me because my comfort zone was in Russia, [for] like seven years, and I moved and started [all over] again,” he said.
The adjustment period is over now. His family has joined him in Florida. His two children love going to Disney World. During preseason training, he didn’t join their adventures because he was busy training for the upcoming season. However, he joked they returned home as tired as he did because of all the walking they did.
The training sessions are exhaustive under Pareja. There were three-a-days in Cancun and two-a-days in the new facility in Kissimmee. Compared to last season, Pereyra is fit and his quality has been prominent in training and preseason matches.
“What I have seen in the field is a player, he has a lot of control of the middle of the field,” Pareja said. “He’s very smart, he reads the game and I see in Mauricio somebody who can help us and fill a couple of positions. He will help us just to modify the models that we need along the year.”
There is a level of trust Pereyra has garnered since Pareja took over in December. During Orlando City’s preseason match against the USL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies on Wednesday, Pereyra was sporting the captain’s armband with Nani not available. Pereyra could be in line to be the Lions’ vice-captain, and Pareja said his experience only helps.
Even if he doesn’t wear the captain’s armband, there are high expectations for Pereyra this season. He was brought in and signed as one of three designated players for the club, alongside Nani and forward Dom Dwyer.
Orlando City executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi identified Pereyra as a player who could take the Lions to the next level because of his creativity in the midfield.
“I think that this year we’re going to have the opportunity to see the full Mauricio,” Muzzi said. “I think last year he came into a situation that was not ideal for him and, as he said, he was training, but he was training getting ready to get into preseason mode.”
Pereyra’s ability on the ball does more than just create chances. He reads the game and reacts, allowing other midfielders, such as Junior Urso, to be more aggressive and move higher up the pitch. Pereyra can sit back and ping passes out wide or through the center.
“He brings quality to the game,” Urso said through a translator. “It is very important for me to have him because sometimes my style of play, I keep going very high, very high, and he’s always there for me to cover and to pass me the ball. I hope he’s going to be the No. 10 that we deserve with a lot of assists and goals.”
Pereyra said the goal, like every team, is to win the MLS Cup. He added that continuing to build the chemistry the team has created in the preseason is paramount. And if Orlando City wants to make the MLS playoffs for the first time, Pereyra will play an integral role in making it happen.
“I think this is his year,” Muzzi said.