National Writer: Charles Boehm

Will Oscar Pareja stay or go? Orlando City's future uncertain

Oscar Pareja stay or go

An impressive season in which Orlando City SC set new club records for victories, points, road wins and goal differential is over, thanks to Saturday’s narrow 2-0 Eastern Conference Semifinal loss to the Columbus Crew at Exploria Stadium.

Now full focus will turn towards a matter that’s been bubbling on the back burner with each step of their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs run: Could these really be the final weeks of Oscar Pareja’s tenure in central Florida?

Uncertainty in Orlando

At first glance, it seems questionable the Lions’ head coach could be allowed to leave after four solid years in charge, during which the Colombian has led OCSC to a 2022 US Open Cup championship, a run to the MLS is Back Tournament final in 2020 and four straight postseason qualifications after their repeated failures to reach that stage during their first half-decade in the top flight.

But Pareja is out of contract at season’s end, as are EVP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi and technical director/assistant general manager Ricardo Moreira, albeit with 2024 option years for the latter duo, who were promoted and extended after the 2021 campaign.

Muzzi and Moreira have been key in several successful MLS SuperDraft picks like breakout rookie striker Duncan McGuire and building a roster packed with skill, savvy and South American character despite one of the lowest salary spends in the league, per MLS Players Association documents.

It’s a fairly unusual situation in MLS for a technical staff with a proven track record like theirs.

One data point for their standing in league circles: Moreira has been a sought-after commodity, with multiple reports that D.C. United sought unsuccessfully to recruit him for their vacant GM post, both a year ago and last month, before eventually hiring Ally Mackay away from Nashville SC. Moreira posted two cryptic tweets on Sunday that could be interpreted as a goodbye to Orlando and their supporters.

“I believe that now it is a different analysis, certainly, now because we are talking about the game and how it developed,” said Pareja in Spanish when asked after Saturday’s loss if he desired to continue with the OCSC project. “This group of players and coaches and staff, I believe that the people who have represented this city and who have made this club visible in MLS, the only thing you have to feel today is pride.

“I think that we are so sad because they are frustrated, because we really lived the possibility of winning MLS Cup. That is an important step. We are going to carry the frustration inside, because it is normal until we go and win it. But I think that the journey that the boys and the club have taken has been very, very good. We fell short, and for this I have a big responsibility, but the kids have done a very good job.”

Pareja's Project

From the outside, at least, the uncertainty about the future didn’t destabilize the group on their ‘23 postseason run.

“We are just concentrated on the playoffs,” Pareja told last week. “I think my responsibility from the summer here was just to concentrate on doing the job and trying to help the team to win games and qualify for playoffs and after that, put the team in the best way possible. So far, that's the reality, that's what we have and then we're going to wait until we finish. When we finish, we'll see.”

Talks about a contract extension for Pareja date back more than a year, with reports of ongoing discussions at the end of the 2022 campaign. Orlando owner and chairperson Mark Wilf was asked about the matter by Mike Bianchi on local radio station FM 96.9 The Game on Wednesday, and professed to be content with both the performance and status of the Lions’ brain trust.

“Oscar, Luiz and Ricardo, our whole soccer administration, they've done a great job – incredible job. It’s our fourth playoff appearance, number-two seed this year,” said Wilf. “So we’ve had discussions on contracts. Right now we’ve decided collectively to just, let’s get through this, let’s make the full charge, hopefully get our fans an MLS Cup, and once we’re done with the playoffs, we’ll return our attention to those discussions and potential new contracts.”

Asked if he was confident that Pareja, Muzzi and Moreira will be back, Wilf responded, “Yes, I am.”

The Wilf family also own the Minnesota Vikings and one source close to OCSC suggested to that Orlando’s approach may reflect an NFL sensibility with regards to how such contract matters are handled.

Orlando or elsewhere?

The well-traveled, bilingual Pareja, who won a Supporters’ Shield-Open Cup double with FC Dallas in 2016 in addition to playing an instrumental role in the construction and operation of their vaunted youth-development pipeline, would almost certainly be a sought-after candidate for coaching vacancies around the league. Last week, he sounded inclined to stay in purple if possible.

“I am very grateful with the support that I have received from the Wilf family and the tremendous ownership that has led us to put this franchise in a different level,” he said. “I feel like we are, or the club is, in a pretty good direction. So I’m good here and happy, but this is natural in this industry, right? We don't know where we're going to be tomorrow. So, seriously, we're just waiting to see how we finish our season, and doing the job that is required now.”

“We’re all hoping that the end of the season is like a month away or three weeks away,” he said. “But I think there’s gonna be a lot of interesting things to happen from now to the end of the year. Lots of pieces that we need to get in place and connect and make sure that we can continue running here.”