Oscar Pareja has done stuff kind of like this before. He took a poor, nose-diving Colorado Rapids team in 2012 and turned them into a playoff team in 2013. He took a stagnant FC Dallas side in 2014 and made them into a perpetual contender for hardware, including a Supporters’ Shield/U.S. Open Cup double in 2016. He knows how to take already existing pieces and turn them into something better than what they had been.
But I don’t think anyone expected him to do so much so quickly with an Orlando City SC side that had been so consistently poor over the entire half-decade of their MLS existence. The Loons outplayed Minnesota United en route to a 3-1 win in the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament on Thursday night, just like they’ve outplayed every team they’ve come up against over the past month. They are into the Final. They quite obviously deserve to be there.
What has made this transformation so unexpected is that Pareja’s done it with largely the same roster that had struggled last year. There are a couple of new pieces, but there was no overhaul. Pareja apparently came to Florida and said “yeah, I can work with this.”
What has made this transformation so gratifying is that the Lions are playing some of the most attractive soccer in the league. They more than than survived LAFC‘s vaunted press in the quarters; they played right through it. Against Minnesota they took the best shot the high-energy Loons had and didn’t just counterpunch; they wore ’em down with body blows until the press dissolved:
There have been other great transformations in MLS history, and it’s fair to say that what Bruce Arena’s done in New England is pretty similar to what Pareja’s done.
But the bottom in Foxborough wasn’t quite as deep, and the heights haven’t been quite so lofty. Pareja’s buried five years of failure with six games of pure magic in Disney World this summer.
Nobody saw it coming. Nobody can deny it’s been beautiful to watch.