Orlando City SC were among the highest-scoring teams in 2020, with their 40 goals scored ranking fifth across MLS and trailing just the Supporters’ Shield-winning Philadelphia Union for the Eastern Conference lead.
But the Lions have gone about strengthening their attacking corps this offseason, signing Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato and Dutch winger Silvester van der Water. They join a group that already includes Nani, Benji Michel, Tesho Akindele and budding US men’s national team winger Chris Mueller, as well as South Americans Matheus Aias and Alexander Alvarado, who arrived deep into the 2020 season. Layer in how Orlando expect striker Daryl Dike to return in May from his loan to Barnsley in England’s Championship, and the competition for playing time gets even stingier.
Allocating those minutes appropriately falls under head coach Oscar Pareja’s purview, and he’s excited by how the group could look when the 2021 campaign gets underway April 17.
“Last year, I thought it was a big step forward toward what we want and having a great production from our attacking players, having some of the youngsters stepping up,” Pareja said Thursday via Zoom. “For example, what's happening with Dike is a good example. At the same time, we want to improve. We know and understand this is a very competitive league and in order to achieve the objectives we want to be better.
“That's the reason why we aim for bringing more attacking players who can give us diverse forces going forward, can give us versatility. We found in Pato and Silvester too those qualities, but we're waiting for Dike in May and letting him have this great experience of being in the Championship and having this many games, knowing that we were in a pandemic mode.”
Pareja added that Nani, now 34, came in “even better physically” after proving that the former Portugal international remains a game-changer. And there’s the presence of attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra, their No. 10 who pulls the strings and occupies a Designated Player spot alongside Nani.
They collectively form one of the league’s deepest attacking groups, even if Dike's overseas experience becomes permanent. Barring some “extraordinary” happening financially, the Lions are planning for the short-term loan to reach a sharp conclusion.
“[Dike] has that experience to go overseas and have a good experience, knowing that our league is very strong at the moment too,” Pareja said. “But sometimes other clubs, other competitions, the natural business of the game, it could be something done. But at the moment we are waiting on finalizing the loan at the end of the season, in May, and bringing him back.”
All along, Orlando are keeping their expectations sky-high in 2021. Under Pareja’s leadership, the Lions made their first playoff appearance a season ago and advanced to the MLS is Back Tournament final, making significant progress after five playoff-less seasons upon their MLS entry in 2015.
“I said on the first day I came to this club more than a year ago that with no excuses, I always aim to win the titles and MLS Cup and any competition that I'm involved with,” Pareja said. “With no excuses, I think that's the least I can transmit to our players and the culture that we want to develop in Orlando.
“Our goals have to always be the highest and the highest is pursuing the big prize, which is winning cups and titles. I won't say anything different this year, it's what we are pursuing.”