Though Oscar Pareja leads Orlando City SC now, he still carries a piece of Texas in his heart.
The Lions’ head coach took care to extend a message of support and respect to his former club FC Dallas, as well as the rest of the league, on Tuesday afternoon as he addressed the media on the eve of Orlando’s match vs. Inter Miami CF, the curtain-raiser for the MLS is Back tournament at Disney’s Wide World of Sports (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVA Sports).
“Major League Soccer has put this together in order to give to the entire society, to the communities, the game back to them, because they need it,” said Pareja of the event, one of the first North American sports leagues to return to action after the shutdowns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“My respect for the ones that are here, including the ones who have [found it] challenging like FC Dallas, that they have the courage to be here and make that happen. I hope that the boys are healthy and we can overcome that. But we are proud of Major League Soccer, and we want to show our game to the world. And we're committed to do that.”
FCD were withdrawn from the competition on Monday due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the squad, with 10 players and one staff member testing positive for the virus since their arrival in Florida. Pareja was a distinguished player for the North Texans from 1998-2005, oversaw their academy in its early years and led the first team from 2014-18, a stint highlighted by a U.S. Open Cup-Supporters’ Shield double in 2016.
After a year in charge of Liga MX side Club Tijuana, the Colombian returned stateside to steer Orlando’s latest rebuilding project last winter. Despite 2020’s unique disruptions, he expects his team to show continued signs of progress during the MLS is Back Tournament.
“We’re trying from the beginning to install in the team and the club a philosophy, a culture within the team, trying to get them a game model that we can follow, and a structure where the players can grow,” said Pareja, who added that his players are fit in cardiovascular terms, but perhaps less so in match sharpness.
“It hasn't been a steady semester with the training and the competition, as we all know," he added. "But we expect them to show part of what we have worked, and obviously the more games we play, that’s going to be seen more often. But we're pretty clear in the idea. And I'm expecting to have a team with identity, that we show that this is the idea of the game that we want to play.”
This week Lions star Nani spoke of the psychological component of the tournament, with teams working in relative isolation at the Swan & Dolphin Resort and taking various precautions to avoid viral exposure or transmission. Asked about that aspect, Pareja hailed the professionalism of the league’s players and coaches in the unprecedented situation.
“The mental part that Nani mentioned, or many other players mentioned, it could be the most difficult one. And I know everyone is trying to overcome that. And that's great,” he said, taking “the opportunity to congratulate all the players that are here, the coaches that are committed with this project here. It’s not easy.”