They're only a few games into the Oscar Pareja era, but what a difference a few games can make at Orlando City SC.
The well-respected former FC Dallas manager took charge in Orlando after a year-plus sojourn from MLS managing in Liga MX, and the appointment was met with widespread acclaim. It hasn't taken long for Pareja's influence to be felt.
Orlando's first two games of the season without midfield star Nani offered an encouraging start. With Nani back in the fold following a disciplinary suspension, the Lions built on that promise at the MLS is Back Tournament, storming to earn seven points in three games and win Group A.
"This year’s different because the team has confidence in the other players who are playing," attacker Chris Mueller said during a conference call. "I think that we have an identity as to how we’re going to play on the field. And also the coach is good and has good ideas for the entire team. And for this reason I think the team is different and we have a different way of thinking on the pitch.
"We believe we can win every game. It doesn’t matter against which team and we always have this way of thinking when we’re playing. That’s why I think we’re different."
Pareja was attracted to the possibilities of Orlando as a club both on and off the field, exemplified by a dedicated fan base and willingness to spend on big stars including Nani now and Kakà before him. Still, they seek that first MLS Cup Playoff appearance.
"I see a lot of potential on the franchise and a lot of potential in the club," Pareja said. "I found a team with a good foundation and hopefully the early success we’ve had can continue. It’s a long journey. It’s day by day. Not five or six games. It’s long journey. Hopefully we can make things happen soon and we’re in a good direction."
The early results are good enough that Orlando will likely be favorites when they face the Montreal Impact in the round of 16 on Saturday (8 pm ET | ESPN2/Deportes, TSN, TVA Sports). With a berth to the Concacaf Champions League and a place in the record books up for grabs for the competition winner, the Lions' sights are high.
"We know that we came here to make history," defender Antonio Carlos said. "When I signed with Orlando City that’s exactly what I wanted to do. That’s what I want to do with my teammates."
He added a note of caution though.
"Right now during the knockout round we need to be concentrated and more focused on what Oscar wants us to do against Montreal so we don’t make any mistakes," Carlos said. "Because any mistakes now could be very costly."