MLS pundits and fans tend to spend a great deal of time thinking about and discussing players – transfers, transfer rumors, Designated Players, budgets, TAM and all the various other factors that go into building and improving rosters.
That’s understandable, given how much spending and ambition have increased across the league in recent years. Blue-chip talent wins a great many games in MLS and it’s difficult to win trophies without it. For all its moments of individual excellence on the pitch, however, Monday night’s 1-1 draw between the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City underlined a different revelation about this evolving league: just how pivotal the figures in the technical area have become.
Monday was only Oscar Pareja’s fifth game in charge of Orlando, and so far he’s made a relatively modest handful of acquisitions to bolster the squad he inherited. Yet already the Lions look like a dramatically different side from the disappointing ones that have fallen so far short of expectations in central Florida over the past several seasons, showing organization, ambition and resolve against a Philly side that is a few steps ahead on a very similar pathway out of the Eastern Conference basement.
“They decided from the first minute to be protagonists of the game and I think they did it,” said Pareja as he congratulated his team on the comeback draw that earned them first place in Group A. “We have another experience when we were down in the score, and we bounced back quickly. That just tells us that the team has personality and desire, and that made us feel very confident.
“We try to give them guidelines and give them a structure, but the heart of the game is managed by the players,” he noted later in Spanish. “In the end, they wanted more, and in the locker room there was dissatisfaction with the result. And that makes us feel that they want to have the initiative all the time.”
For all the growth and glamor of the past few years, MLS remains a place where salary-budget regulations complicate efforts to undo past mistakes and complete rebuilds tend to take time. That means that coaches have to figure out how to coax improvement out of the assets they have, rather than simply splash out for new players on their wish list. They have to mold diverse assortments of stars, veterans, imports and Homegrowns into coherent collectives with clear ideas and consistent execution.
Highlights of Philadelphia Union vs. Orlando City SC
We've seen the fruits of Matias Almeyda's labor with the San Jose Earthquakes at this event, and Caleb Porter's Columbus Crew are a comparable case. Pareja already proved his expertise at this in Dallas and Colorado, and he’s doing it again for Orlando.
“We are a much better team, obviously the results show that," said midfielder Uri Rosell. "But I feel like when you watch the games you see the consistency, you see that every day we are improving. Every day we play we feel better in ourselves, we get more confident.
“I think at the end when you are well-organized and everybody gives their best and they know their role, things come through.”
OCSC and the Union are two teams on the rise, albeit currently at different points on their upward trajectories, and the work of their coaching staffs are enormous factors in that progress, more so than any one or two game-breaking star players.
Philly’s Jim Curtin took a different path to this point than Pareja, working his way up from academy coach to the first-team boss and benefiting from the trust and patience of his superiors during some down periods along the way. It might have taken him longer to perfect his formula, yet his influence is palpable in this impressive Union side, who can offer Orlando a useful lesson in the values of stability, accountability and culture.
Curtin’s side traveled to MLS is Back with legitimate title ambitions; that’s the next item on their particular checklist. The Lions sought something more basic – foundational building blocks, progress, respectability. They’ll aspire to much more than that in the Knockout Stage, but no matter what happens the rest of the way, it’s a huge credit to Pareja that he’s already advanced this far down his to-do list.
“It’s a day-by-day thing. We have the desire and the commitment,” he said of the bigger-picture project. “We are creating a culture here; the players are creating a culture also. But it’s something that is a daily work. We are very proud about the job that they have done in these three games, because they show consistency. And it's not just one game, but has been three, with three very good teams, and we’re believing in what we're doing. So step by step we keep growing.”