KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Oscar Pareja has made his outlook clear for this season.
Orlando City’s new coach arrived with high expectations after taking over a team that has disappointed through its first five seasons in MLS. The club has no playoff appearances and Pareja is the fourth different head coach.
So to change a culture, Pareja has implemented his style and his expectations. It is no longer the notion just to make the playoffs. It’s to win the Eastern Conference and the MLS Cup.
The journey, as Pareja has called it, begins this weekend.
Orlando City kicks off the 2020 campaign against Real Salt Lake on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Exploria Stadium. The game will air on WRBW-Channel 65.
“I’ve said this a number of times, it’s a preparation for a season, not for a game,” Pareja said. “It’s preparation for a season that is 34 games plus the playoffs. The team is growing and we are, at this point, ready to get started.”
Optimism within the team is high.
A change in structure has allowed players to be more free-flowing out on the pitch. Getting three points against RSL, which underwent a period of adjustment under Freddy Juarez in the middle of last year, would be the optimal start.
“Since preseason, we’ve all been thinking about this first game,” forward Benji Michel said. “It’s really important to get these three points. To get [off] on a good start, get the confidence going and it’s what the fans love as well.”
To prepare for Saturday, Pareja has been focusing on what Orlando City can and can’t do. Through Thursday morning, the team has not done a ton of work on RSL, instead focusing on what it can control on the pitch.
“Players have been preparing well. More excited just to be at this point where we’re starting the competition,” Pareja said.
The Lions will be short-handed in attack. Forward Dom Dwyer will not play as he continues to nurse a lower-body injury. New midfielder Júnior Urso, who said he is “very anxious,” is expected to make his regular-season Orlando City debut, along with goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
Saturday’s match will be a stiff opening test for the Lions.
Under Juarez, who took over last August as the interim coach, RSL went 7-4-2 to earn a third-place finish in the Western Conference. RSL had a home playoff win over Portland Timbers before losing in the semifinals to eventual MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders. Juarez was named the team’s permanent coach in December.
Under Juarez, RSL typically conceded possession to catch opposing teams on the counterattack.
Former Orlando City midfielder Justin Meram could be making his return to Exploria Stadium. Meram, who joined RSL during the offseason, spent part of the 2018 season with the Lions before being traded back to Columbus Crew. Meram scored one goal and provided three assists for Orlando City in 17 games two years ago before he took a leave absence and was later traded. Meram cited fan negativity as a problem in Orlando, sparking more jeers from Lions fans every time he has returned to Orlando.
Tactically, Pareja wants the Lions to be “protagonists” and be the aggressor in games. Midfielder Chris Mueller said Orlando City wants to maintain possession, but be able to move the ball quickly up the pitch to create attacking opportunities while not conceding goals.
Saturday’s contest against RSL will provide the first insight on how Pareja sets up his team tactically in games that count. Three points at home are the expectation.
Orlando City vs. Real Salt Lake, 6
Where: Exploria Stadium
Watch: WRBW-65, 96.9 The Game, Real Radio 104.1, Acción 97.9, ESPN+
The Buzz: Orlando City enters the season under the direction of new coach Oscar Pareja after missing the playoffs in 2019. … Nani led the team on offense with 12 goals and 10 assists last season. … Real Salt Lake also enters the 2020 season with a new coach after the firing of Mike Petke due to use of bigoted language directed at a referee midway through the 2019 season. Freddy Juarez will start his first full season as head coach after serving as interim through the remainder of 2019. … Albert Rusnák led RSL with 10 goals.