Orlando Sentinel

‘Orlando has arrived’

Unified Lions bring winning energy into 2021 MLS season

- Story by Julia Poe | Orlando Sentinel | Photo illustrati­on by Dariush Azmoudeh

The unified Lions are bringing a winning energy into this year’s MLS season. Take a look at the team roster and more inside our 2021 Orlando City preview.

In the cramped locker room of the MLS is Back tournament last July, the players of Orlando City unintentio­nally wrote a new team mantra. The Lions had just completed one of the biggest victories in club history — a penalty shootout triumph over LAFC to advance to the tournament semifinal. A moment like that called for one of the team’s favorite songs — “Favela Chegou”, a samba song by Brazilian artists Ludmilla and Anitta.

At ESPN Wide World of Sports, the sound of the song booming from a portable speaker signaled the Lions’ arrival before they were even visible — in the lobby and the pool, on the back of golf carts, and then in the locker room as the team celebrated one of the biggest wins in club history.

Defender João Moutinho began to chant his own version over the lyrics, his teammates quickly catching on, until the words reverberat­ed through the locker room.

“Oooooh, Orlando chegoooou!” Translated to English, the song doubled as a statement of both celebratio­n and warning — “Orlando has arrived.”

“That was a mark in the team last year for whenever we had those good moments,” defender Antonio Carlos said. “We want to listen to that song even more this year, because when we hear it, that means more wins, more goals, more good moments to celebrate.”

When coach Oscar Pareja took the helm of the Lions in 2020, he set a simple goal for the year — reshape Orlando City’s identity into a team that saw itself as the protagonis­ts of every game.

Over the course of an 11-4-8 season, the coach accomplish­ed that. The Lions made it to their first MLS postseason and the final of the MLS is Back tournament. The season elevated Orlando’s profile across the league, lifting Chris Mueller, Andrés Perea, Benji Michel and Daryl Dike to their first call-ups for the United States men’s national team.

In his second year, Pareja said, the Lions have become a team unfulfille­d by anything except winning.

“We found an identity,” Pareja said. “I think that identity needs to keep growing. It has to be evolving. I can see that we have a team already who are finding ways to find results, to be protagonis­ts of the games. We have a team that has the desire in the difficult moments of the games. Now the most challengin­g part is how to be consistent with it . ... We are here to win games, nothing less.”

Protagonis­m became the Lions’ identity on the field. But off the field, a love of music and dance has defined the family its players have formed together.

At first, it was a simple way to cross the language barrier that divided the team early in 2020. Now, music is a booming mainstay in the Lions’ locker room.

On any given day, keeper Pedro Gallese can be spotted with a chunky Bose speaker in one hand, swinging it around as he dances to a beat.

That speaker was part of every celebratio­n last season, blasting ‘Favela Chegou’ as players roared their favorite chant in the locker room. At preseason camp, Gallese lugged it onto golf carts and into team dinners, always returning to the samba anthem.

Although the aux cord often swaps hands, Gallese has become the main DJ of the group, earning praise from strikers Pato and Tesho Akindele for his song selections.

“There’s always someone who’s maintainin­g that energy, and I think energy is kind of contagious,” Akindele said. “Maybe you’re kind of having a down or a slow day yourself, but then Pedro comes in with the world’s biggest speaker playing music. You kind of rise to that energy level in the locker room every day.”

After spending nearly two months together in the MLS is Back bubble, the team emerged with a unique rapport.

During off days, players meet up for Bible studies and dinners and celebrate family birthdays with one another. Once a month, assistant coach Josema Bazan hauls a sprawling barbecue setup onto the fields at the training complex, grilling up asado for players to gorge themselves after practice.

After games, players like Carlos and Júnior Urso often hop onto their gaming consoles to knock out a few “Call of Duty” multiplaye­r rounds before they go to sleep.

“If you don’t see Mauricio [Pereyra] in pictures with us, that’s because he’s too old,” teased Carlos, who is only two years younger than Pereyra. “He’s always tired; He never answers the phone.”

The team even stayed close across continents. When Dike went abroad for his loan to Barnsley, his teammates made sure to watch each of his games, trading encouragem­ent and jokes from afar.

The Lions feel this connection directly translates to their success on the pitch.

“When you’re on the pitch, you’re family,” striker Matheus Aiás said. “When you’re off the pitch, you’re family. It only builds the team into a stronger competitiv­e force on the field.”

This closeness was particular­ly noticeable to the team’s newest additions, such as Brazilian star Pato.

The striker described a uniquely unified energy in the Lions locker room, something he said has been rare to find over his 16-year career.

“Sometimes in the world in soccer, they don’t have this friendship,” Pato said. “Sometimes you have many problems, confusions, different groups, but here it’s just one group . ... The locker room is joking but everyone has it in the mind, in the head — we need to push for something special.”

In 2021, Pareja and the Lions are focused on a new objective — continuity. The coach wants his team to start immediatel­y where they left off last season.

This goal has been bolstered by the lowest offseason turnover since the club’s MLS debut in 2015. The Lions kept 24 members of the 2020 roster and added only six new players during the offseason, including two academy products.

“It was just relieving,” Mueller said. “It was awesome to come back in and already have that team chemistry. It’s automatic.”

That familiarit­y also brings a shared pain from the way last season ended. The historic season came to a sharp, sudden halt in the second round of the playoffs with a 3-1 loss to New England on the Lions’ home pitch that was highlighte­d by lost tempers throughout the roster.

The memory is still bitter, but players and coaches said it hasn’t soured the team’s chemistry.

Instead, it’s become a constant source of fuel for a club intent on repeating only its successes and none of its mistakes in 2021.

“I haven’t gotten over it yet,” Pareja said. “I still carry the pain, not just from that battle but many other battles. I always carry those on my back and try to learn from them and use them as motivation to encourage our players to get better.

“With the energy that the boys have and the desire, the dreams and the commitment that we all have with this club, we expect nothing but to keep going and keep competing for first place.”

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