ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City earned a 1-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Impact Saturday night at Exploria Stadium, notching a positive start to the season under new coach Óscar Pareja.
Besides a win, the game also gave Orlando City fans their first look at how the team will play under Pareja. The coach’s expectations for the preseason match were simple — test the team’s fitness after three-a-day trainings in Mexico and begin to develop chemistry on and off the ball. Pareja said the team exceeded his expectations in both categories.
“We wanted to see that the team is strong physically. That’s our objective now — to see if physically we’re responding to camp,” Pareja said. “I saw that, probably more than I thought [I would]. With the ball, it was better as well. With the ball, we had sequences where we see them following the idea of the game. The boys were very disciplined with what we wanted in this short time. There was a lot of positive things.”
Although the team remained disjointed due to the short amount of time to train together, several stylistic changes were evident throughout the match as the Lions passed at a higher tempo and utilized quick flicks and backheels to swarm in the attacking third.
Although Orlando City held the general shape of a four-back when Montreal had possession, the Lions morphed into something closer to a three-back when they went on the attack. This gave outside backs such as Ruan free range to use their speed and scorch up the flanks, sending in crosses from deep in the attacking third to add another weapon to the offense.
Nani continued his reliable scoring from the 2019 season to open the 2020 preseason books in Orlando. The captain sent home a golazo of a free kick from the top of the box to give the Lions a 1-0 lead in the 39th minute, celebrating with a round-off back handspring to cheers from the crowd.
Despite the fact that the night was only a preseason friendly, Orlando City fans were energized for the game with the promise of a new coach and off season additions. For striker Benji Michel, it was a reminder of who the team will play for in its sixth season in MLS.
“I was actually surprised — I wouldn’t say surprised, but I was happy to see a lot of our fans coming out to support us,” Michel said. “It was just a preseason scrimmage, so I imagine once the season starts, the amount of people that’s gonna be there — I’m just excited.”
The preseason match failed to answer one of the biggest questions of 2020 for the Lions — will Dom Dwyer be able to overcome his shooting slump? The designated player said he feels he “has a point to prove” entering the year after netting only seven goals last year.
Even before the starting whistle, Dwyer was bustling with energy, motioning to the crowd and trotting around in a circle before kickoff. He flew around the attack like a heat-seeking missile in the first half, attempting a scissor kick and a leaping aerial header that both nearly netted goals. But he was unable to find frame either time, pounding his head after each miss in frustration.
The striker earned a yellow card to close the first half and continued to struggle to connect in the second half. He was subbed off in the 57th minute for Tesho Akindele, remaining scoreless in his first public outing of the preseason.
The match also gave new keeper Pedro Gallese his first touches between the posts at Exploria Stadium. After Montreal’s slow start, Gallese saw his first chance to prove himself to his new fanbase in the closing minutes of the half. On a breakdown in the box, he batted away one ball, then kicked away the follow shot while still on his knees.
The keeper kept a clean sheet, giving the Lions a positive start to the year on their home pitch.
“Montreal is very intense, so I think we did well,” Gallese said. “The communication me and Rodrigo [Schlegel] and Antônio [Carlos] and the entire team as well is very good. I think it’s very important for us to get to know each other as a group because that’s going to help us build more confidence.”
After two closed matches against the Tampa Bay Rowdies and D.C. United, the team will play another preseason match open to the public against KR Reykjavík on Feb. 18.