NYCvsORL - July 14 - Sam Jones column

For the first time since May 6, 2018, Orlando City have won two straight games. And for once, this isn’t a lead-in to a dunk. It’s a lead-in to a concession from someone writing this piece from his home in Atlanta, Georgia: Things are just more fun when Orlando is winning.

Against NYCFC they not only won, but they did it in a stylistically engaging way in a match they controlled from the start against last year’s top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s a huge win that by itself would be galvanizing for a suffering fan base, but it comes on the heels of a stoppage-time win over an in-state rival that inspired a homemade fireworks show at an OCSC drive-in watch party.

It’s unexpected. And in the grand scheme of things it might not matter. But things feel amplified in a tournament setting and the manner in which they picked up both wins will feel important. In two scenarios where we’ve seen the team implode in the past, they've gotten the job done. There’s the late winner against Miami that didn’t come in plenty of other games (especially in rivalries) and then there’s an impressive effort to go up early and then close out the game against an NYCFC team that piled on the shots but couldn’t find enough clear chances for it to matter.

These Lions are different

Possibly more than any club, Orlando City has needed a culture reboot.

Those changes don’t happen overnight, and two wins aren’t enough to make them permanent. The last two-game win streak they had came at the end of a six-game tear to start the 2018 season. That team finished last in the Eastern Conference. But culture changes need a jumping-off point. And someone to be a catalyst for those shifts.

On a micro-level in this tournament, that person has been Chris Mueller, the soft-spoken 23-year-old winger whose personal website states that he’s a professional footballer first and an avid reader second. He has a book club. None of that is a bit. As pleasant as he is elsewhere, on the field he’s been relatively ruthless. He has three goals so far in the tournament and the first one against NYCFC had heads turning. By his second, he had smart people who watch a lot of soccer and have fancy blue checkmarks next to their name openly asking if it was time to give Mueller a shot with the USMNT.

On a macro-level, that person could be Oscar Pareja. His last stint in MLS included a Supporters’ Shield and a U.S. Open Cup with FC Dallas and players like Mueller are putting in solid performances with a level of confidence to them that will be important in the grand search to turn things around.

Immediately after discussing how his own confidence had improved under Pareja in the post-match press conference, Mueller heaped praise on Pareja and his staff for the newfound level of assuredness across the entire team.

“If you look at this team, the mentality is just different. We believe that we’re a winning team. We know that we have a lot of quality out there,” Mueller said. “We’re well-coached. The whole staff is so detailed oriented, they know what they want and everybody has a clear role. When you bring that together with a group of quality players who are focused and determined to win, I think it makes a good mix for a good squad.”

The truth about Orlando City

Now. For someone who’s spent the better part of his MLS fandom gleefully antagonizing this Orlando team and its fanbase as a way to cope with his own insecurities, this next part will be a little more difficult to say than “well-coached team with a growing collection of talent might be pretty ok at soccer soon.” I’m having to break kayfabe on like four years of character development here, so stay with me.

This Orlando fanbase does and always has deserved better. They’re passionate, they’re engaged and the team is ingrained into the city’s culture—the actual city and the people that live there, not the theme parks—despite their having none of the success of any other team with a top-tier fanbase. They are the kid who keeps getting knocked over by the big guys and keeps getting up off the floor. I respect that. And then when they get sick of that, they head to social media to tweet at the other fans of the big guys, and honestly, I respect that too.

When this team wins and the fanbase can be a more vibrant and larger part of the discussions we have, the league is better for it. When people who are just discovering MLS can look at a fanbase that stayed attached even when things were miserable and finally got rewarded, the league will be better for it.

It’s just more interesting if Orlando are good. And it’s hard to not want to see someone who’s working to drag themselves out of a hole succeed.

I might have even celebrated a goal or two tonight...

Ok, yeah, that’s a lie. But I stand by everything else. At least until it’s rivalry week again.

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