The betting odds were tilted steeply in the Californians’ favor, with FiveThirtyEight giving them a 72% chance of advancement and most pundits having long since labeled Bob Bradley’s free-flowing side as the one most likely to win this tourney. Orlando, meanwhile, have an MLS history associated with frustration and disappointment as much as anything else over their MLS existence and they are still early in the tenure of their fifth coach in as many seasons.
But the Lions’ boss didn’t play that motivational card.
“Probably that’s a good tool to use,” acknowledged Pareja after his team’s impressive penalty-kick shootout win that sent them to the semis. “Our players don't need it. They know where they're going. And I know I'm very sure that they know who they are. And that's what is important.
“What others think about them is irrelevant at this moment, because we are in our building mode, and that's what I feel: that they're just going and moving forward. Obviously in soccer there’s many people who want to say things, and if we're not the favorites to win, we accept that. It’s normal. But we will continue to improve. One day we will be.”
That day may arrive sooner than anyone – even central Florida’s deepest-purple partisans – had any reason to expect just a few weeks ago. Because in knocking off the reigning Supporters’ Shield holders, the Lions showed that they’re capable of a great deal more than most of us have given them credit for, even after they finished the MLS Is Back group stage undefeated atop the Group A standings.
Now Orlando have reached a point where they are not content merely demanding respect, but they're making sure they leave the field with it as they advance through the tournament. It's what Nani's defiant celebration was all about after his shootout-winning PK. Cupping his ear in an empty stadium? The intended recipient of that message could only be one.
LAFC’s heavy legs were clearly a factor in the riveting quarterfinal encounter. Yet so was the bold mentality Pareja and his players embraced. Collectively they agreed on a proactive, confrontational approach to this match, the coach explained, preferring to go toe-to-toe with the favorites rather than bunker or rope-a-dope.
And it worked.
“We did not want to be hiding there, or spectating,” said Pareja in English. “We wanted to go look for them. And if they press, we wanted to press too. If they play quick, we wanted to set our tempos and manage the game the way we wanted, with personality.
“Sometimes you try to maintain the balance of trusting in what the guys are doing, trust in them and give them the chance to express themselves,” he said later in a Spanish-language answer. “It's a competition on the field with great players and the mental part is important. When it comes to strategy, sometimes [strategy] works and sometimes it doesn't. But I think today the heart of the Orlando players is what secured our objective, because they had an idea, but they executed it with an amazing spirit. It makes me happy and it's an honor to coach them.”
There’s a strong element of fortune in any match decided by PKs, of course, but whatever happens in the semifinals, this result looks like another memorable milestone in Pareja’s dramatic rejuvenation of OCSC. In a matter of months he’s liberated a heretofore hard-luck squad from the burdens of the past and installed an identity that’s proving both effective and entertaining.
“I think it all comes down to our game plan,” said left back Joao Moutinho, whose late equalizer bailed out his famous countryman Nani and sent the game to the shootout. “We want to be protagonists, doesn't really matter who we're up against. We knew that they had a great team, they have very good forwards and midfielders. But we also knew that we had great energy, starting with our front line, and pressing them from the get-go, because yeah, we are trying to make a statement here. We are trying to show the other teams that we're coming out here to play, and to impose our game on them.”
Protagonists: It’s a word that Pareja uses often, and by not only saying it but actually doing it against the team that most fully epitomizes that concept in MLS, he may have just expanded the rest of the league’s conception of what’s happening in Orlando.
“At the end players are the ones who make the things happen on the field, and they deserve it,” said Pareja. “They know that this is another step. We haven't gained anything yet. But we played against a very good team. He has done a great job, Bob, and we respect that. But today we wanted to be protagonist, and they did.”