Only a few years ago, Orlando City SC were toiling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference table with regularity.
Now, two-plus years after head coach Oscar Pareja arrived, the Lions are on the verge of a first-ever trophy since the club joined MLS in 2015.
On Wednesday night (8 pm ET | ESPN+), they’ll host USL Championship side Sacramento Republic FC in the US Open Cup Final – with the victor also booking a 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot. Remarkable progress has unfolded in Orlando.
“The last two years, they achieved as well things that haven't been achieved before here,” Pareja told Extratime’s Andrew Wiebe. “We have been trying to be protagonists of the league and not being a team who's in the bottom. It's not an easy task with all the challenges that we have this year. But still, the boys have found ways to get there and to be fighting for qualification spots [in playoffs].
“Now they have this opportunity to play their second final in three years, and a team that's never done that. I think they need a lot of credit on that part and that's what I recognize, that they're doing a fantastic job on overcoming things that sometimes people don't recognize.”
Orlando’s other final was in 2020, when they lost the MLS is Back Tournament to the Portland Timbers. This year, to reach the historic national tournament’s title match, they’ve knocked off five previous opponents and walloped the New York Red Bulls, 5-1, in the semifinals.
All the while, Pareja’s team sits fifth in the Eastern Conference standings and is trending towards a third-straight postseason trip. He acknowledged they’ve been far from perfect this year, but their successes are undeniable as well.
“We have been very inconsistent, but we have a condition where I have to give credit to the players,” Pareja said. “We are adapting, we are reacting, we are finding our ways – not just to qualify, but dream for more.
“We're not the best team in the league, we're not among the best teams in the league. But we are a team with character and that's us. We'll fight with those tools. It's a long league, it's 34 games plus. The only thing that I have to say today is that we are in the qualification spot and we play in the Cup final. That's a lot for this group and we're proud.”
Orlando’s season has unfolded with a new-look attack, and weathering injuries to key players like center back Antonio Carlos and forward Alexandre Pato at various points. Plus, U22 Initiative winger Gaston Gonzalez tore his ACL before arriving from Club Atlético Unión in his native Argentina.
Despite those challenges, Orlando are on the verge of history – looking to avoid a lower-division side beating an MLS opponent in the title match for the first time since 1999.
“I need to recognize the effort of the players,” Pareja said. “The best teams sometimes are not the ones who play the best, but they want to overcome situations. I have to recognize that this group of players has done that and we're battling like any other team in the league. It's not many, as I say, that have consistency.”
For more from Pareja, check out the full Extratime episode here.