Orlando City SC has been one of the pleasant surprises of the early season. But how has the team gotten it done? I caught up with Gavin Ewbank of Orlando Soccer Journal for the intel on OCSC.
For Club and Country: A lot of people were surprised by the Lions’ performance in the MLS is Back Tournament. Obviously the players and coaches weren’t going to say anything other than they expected that level of success… but did they surprise themselves with the strong showing?
Gavin Ewbank: I think that’s fair to say to a degree. Orlando wasn’t looking for anything less than winning MLS is Back when they went into the bubble, so to be in the Final was probably no shock to them. But it does go without saying that nobody outside of that locker room expected anything near the level of performances that Orlando put in throughout the tournament. Ultimately, this was the vision when Oscar Pareja was hired as head coach last December, yet I certainly don’t think the group was predicting immediate success like this.
FCAC: Even given the disappointment against Miami this weekend, it’s fair to say this is the best several-game stretch of play in the history of the franchise. What has Oscar Pareja done to get an unprecedented level of performance out of the squad?
GE: It starts with the philosophy. Pareja used the word “protagonists” a lot when describing how he wants his side to attack games. We saw that come into play heavily throughout the tournament early in matches, like against NYCFC when they scored twice in the opening ten minutes, and again against LAFC when they jumped at Bob Bradley’s side early and often, controlling much of the first half-hour of that match. I’m sure you’ve heard commentary through their games, but this is largely the same group of players that did not find a lot of success last season under James O’Connor, who very much did not will his team to be this forceful and protagonistic. And then tactically, Pareja has figured out a system and style that really works for this group, using two very underrated fullbacks in Ruan and Joao Moutinho to flank the wings around wingers that tend to invert and join the midfielders, creating an organized, flowing point of attack.
FCAC: That loss to Miami did indeed take place, though. What went wrong in Fort Lauderdale?
GE: The Lions just didn’t look nearly as sharp as they did throughout the tournament. I don’t know if that’s because of same-day travel from Orlando to Ft. Lauderdale (which, in fairness, is only like a half-hour flight, but still) or if after playing so many high-intensity tournament games that things just naturally lacked behind for a bit. Defensively, the Lions weren’t as organized as we saw in Disney. A sloppy turnover led to Miami’s first goal, and then no one picking up a wide-open Rodolfo Pizarro early in the second half let him easily pick up Miami’s third goal. On top of all that, Miami’s side was highly-prepared for this one, blocking up the middle of the park so that Orlando couldn’t play through and out of the back as they like to do, and then shutting down Nani and others on the wings took away another important part of the plan. Overall, it was one of those games where you just have to tip your cap to your opponent for being more prepared.
FCAC: MLS fans gained familiarity with Nani and Chris Mueller during the Tournament. Who are some of the other key players to know to get a great feel for this team?
GE: As I mentioned above, Ruan and Joao Moutinho, the two fullbacks, are a key part of this squad. Ruan’s arguably one of the fastest players in the league on the right side, and Moutinho, a former No. 1 overall pick by LAFC in 2018, can serve in a cross as good as any left-back in MLS. Mauricio Pereyra, a DP who joined the team last summer, broke out as a key-player for Orlando in the tournament. He’s at the heart of the attack in midfield, can make any key pass, and fight off defenders to avoid losing the ball and hold possession. Sebastian Mendez is another energetic midfield, one of those really good, underrated South American midfielders we’re starting to find more of in the league; he likes to get forward and help Orlando in the attack, but he’s also a tough player to attack against as a strong tackler and ball-winner.
FCAC: What is the feel around the community around allowing fans into the games? Is it something that people are wary of (there was a lot of relief in Nashville when it was announced that fans wouldn’t be able to attend, for example), do people think it’s worth the risk?
GE: It’s safe to say that the consensus is split. Naturally, you have your more enthusiastic group of fans that are giddy to get back in the stadium and cheer 90 minutes strong for their club, no matter the circumstances, but at the same time, a lot of people understand that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, large gatherings aren’t safe places to be, and Florida is just coming off of being the country’s epicenter for new cases — this decision carries a lot of potential for disaster. I’ve seen plenty of people expressing intent to go to the games, just as I’ve seen many not believing it’s safe enough yet and wanting to see how this game goes in terms of crowd control, social distancing, etc. The reduced capacity will be roughly 5,000, so I’ll be interested to see if the team actually sells out that allotment in Game 1 back.
FCAC: Any specific predictions for how the game plays out (including a final score if you’re comfortable giving one)?
GE: I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but this is somewhat of a big game for Orlando. They’re back at home (they’re real home), and they’ll want to prove to their fans that the Miami game was a one-off and the real Orlando City is the one we saw in the bubble over seven matches. I expect Orlando come out strong, be protagonists again, and really try to give all of those in stadium (and at home) something good to cheer about and feel good about again. Prediction: Orlando 3, Nashville 0 (sorry, Tim’s readers).
Nani photo by Jared Martinez, photo courtesy Major League Soccer.