Chris Mueller - Orlando City SC - August 26, 2020
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

How Orlando City, Oscar Pareja are quietly cooking up a Supporters' Shield run | Charles Boehm

Today we’re going to talk about Orlando City SC, and the Supporters’ Shield race. But first, we have to talk about barbecue.

This week Oscar Pareja and his coaching staff renewed one of their cherished traditions from their FC Dallas days at the Lions’ training facility, as assistant coach and avid grillmaster Josema Bazan orchestrated an enormous asado (South American-style barbecue) for the team on Wednesday.

The Argentine is no joke with the coals — Bazan has picked up techniques and favored meat cuts from a variety of destinations over his life in soccer (Please save some lomo and picanha for me next time, Profe!) and his work earned the honor of a profile by Texas Monthly’s esteemed barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn two years ago.

Masking and social distancing led Pareja to jokingly dub it “the weirdest barbecue ever” in his Thursday press conference, sounding genuinely saddened that pandemic precautions kept his group from bonding even more closely. Yet the idea and results were clear just the same, another signpost in the Colombian boss’ latest culture-building project. File it alongside Orlando’s run to the MLS is Back Tournament final and impressive ongoing consistency amid injuries, a hectic schedule and the various stresses of this strange season.

The Lions appear to have quickly fashioned a sturdy collective in their first year under Pareja, weathering injuries to key regulars like Tesho Akindele, Joao Moutinho, Uri Rosell and Designated Player Dom Dwyer and the unprecedented complications that have slowed the onboarding of new arrivals like recent signing Matheus Aias. The coaching staff coaxed improvement out of DPs Nani and Mauricio Pereyra, helped Moutinho and Chris Mueller raise their games and seem to have adeptly managed the trajectory of tantalizing rookie talent Daryl Dike

A savvy communicator, “Papi” Pareja has delivered a clear message of positivity and proactivity throughout, patiently building the collective confidence of a club wracked by upheaval for most of their MLS existence, and earning Coach of the Year buzz in the process.

The team that grills together soars together, right?

I sense they’re still flying under the national radar, yet Orlando have shown conclusively that MLS is Back was not just home cooking or a flash in the pan. In fact, the purple-tinged clouds of smoke wafting up from Pareja and Bazan’s proverbial parrilla thus far lead me to rate them as extremely viable dark horses for a run to Supporters’ Shield (such as it is this year, but someone has to finish first!).

OCSC are 5-0-3 in their last eight matches, with just one loss since the tournament, and remain undefeated at home. They sit fourth in both the Eastern Conference and overall league tables, four points off the pace being set by Columbus Crew SC.

While they’ve got some daunting opponents ahead, Columbus and New York City FC in particular, both of those contenders will have to visit the Lions’ friendly confines of Exploria Stadium. Double dates with Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls – who hit Orlando on Saturday for a big national-network-TV clash on the FOX mothership (4:30 pm ET | full TV & streaming info) – look like tricky but winnable fixtures.

Whether they can snatch the Shield or not, they’ll want the best possible seeding for their first-ever MLS Cup Playoffs qualification (which now seems a safe bet). Because as much as we tend to weight the home-field advantage held by clubs in cold climates, descending into central Florida’s tropical heat as winter sets in most everywhere else will pose no small adaptation for away sides.

Will five years of “hapless Orlando” jokes made by opposing fanbases get roasted over open flames this fall? That particular slab of protein isn’t fully cooked just yet, but the recipe looks tasty and the pitmaster sure knows what he’s doing.