There are a handful of really hacky Disney jokes to make about a team from Orlando as the Cinderella story of a tournament held in Orlando.
So let’s not talk about them as a team that’s only getting by with the help of a mysterious fairy with unconfirmed motives and an arbitrary time limit on the extent of her magic. Orlando City are now in the quarterfinals and they are for real. No outside magic needed. And no predetermined time as to when this run will end.
A cynical interpretation of Cinderella is “the only way to be successful is to change everything about yourself.” It’s...not an incorrect interpretation of that story. But, for the sake of being a bit gentler (and for the sake of the entire angle of this article), what if we interpreted it as “the best way to be successful is to accept some help on becoming the best version of yourself.” For Orlando, that’s far closer to the reality of their run.
They didn’t change everything. This team carries over a large part of the core of last year's team that finished 11th in the Eastern Conference. And yet they’re playing with a style and confidence that has them putting in performances indicative of a team very capable of winning this MLS is Back Tournament on purpose.
That kind of change doesn’t happen overnight. But it clearly can happen quickly. Just six games into his tenure, Oscar Pareja has rewired this team using a method that’s far from revolutionary.
“People have asked me about this a lot, and I keep saying the same thing. It’s intensity,” said Tesho Akindele, who scored the Round of 16 game-winner against Montreal. “Oscar [Pareja] brings just a different level of intensity than most coaches. The level of the practices is higher. The standards that are expected of us in the game are higher. And even off the field, these guys are watching video 24/7. They have everything prepared. They have a Plan B prepared. That intense mindset is infectious, and it's helping us get results.”
That boost of intensity and preparedness has sent Orlando bursting forward as a positive feedback loop propels them. Intensity and preparedness leads to confidence, which leads to the clever flicks and interplay we saw from this team against the Montreal Impact, which leads to opportunities to score, which leads to results, which leads to confidence and on and on for as far as the talent level on this team can take it.
Right now the talent looks capable of pulling off a run. Nani, Chris Mueller and Mauricio Pereyra are all putting in consistently excellent performances. But for that talent to take them to the MLS is Back Tournament Final, they’ll need to be at their absolute best in the next game. Either Seattle (defending MLS Cup champs) or LAFC (defending Supporters' Shield winners) will be waiting for them in the quarterfinals. And the handful of huge chances Orlando didn’t convert against Montreal will be punished by one of the league’s best sides.
If they get past one of those two teams, the potential field of semifinalist foes looks a tad kinder with Real Salt Lake, San Jose and Minnesota United waiting in the wings. Or there's a chance they face a red-hot Columbus team that might be extremely good. But hey, they’ll worry about it when they get there. The main thing is that Orlando are now just two wins away from the final, and they’ve shown they have the mentality and ability to push this to the end.
“We've had the lead and we've held onto the lead a few times in a row,” Akindele said. “It shows a strong mentality, shows good organization from the team, and it just shows dedication to the cause from the front and the back. It starts with the forwards, to the midfielders, to the defenders, to the goalie. Everybody has bought in and focuses in those last few minutes, which is something we might've been missing last year. We have it right now.”
When you have that, do you even need a magic wand making things happen? Well, yeah, who wouldn’t want that, don’t be obtuse. But for now, Orlando will feel pretty good about their chances without it.