Coach Pareja is managing Orlando City’s roster rotations amid challenging stretch

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Orlando City (1-0-2, 5 points) remained unbeaten in the MLS regular season after a 1-1 draw at D.C. United on Saturday night.

The result fell short of a victory, but for coach Oscar Pareja, there wasn’t much upon which to dwell because a draw on the road is always more favorable than a defeat.

But shortly after — or perhaps even during — the game, Pareja was looking at an even bigger picture: the task of properly having his players ready for Wednesday’s second leg of the Concacaf Champions League’s Round of 16 against Tigres UANL.

“Sometimes you need to choose. What do you want? Do you want consistency with the lineup and the players that are competing in the main competition that we just had in this leg for the Champions League and try to advance?” Pareja said. “We still have 31 games in Major League Soccer, so you normally think that you might make the players take off, but we want to choose consistency as we have to play them, even if we may not have them in this one game.

“Now, we choose to go in another direction, which is making everyone belong and get minutes from every player and getting contribution from players who may not be a regular in the starting lineup,” he added.

Saturday’s game saw the depth of Orlando’s roster.

Likely starters such as Cesar Araujo, Michael Halliday, Robin Jansson and Martin Ojeda began the game on the bench, and that paved the way for Duncan McGuire and Rafael Santos to make their respective season debuts.

Icelandic midfielder Dagur Dan Thorhallsson had his first start of the season.

And ahead of Wednesday’s crucial Concacaf competition, Pareja said it’s encouraging to see the depth of Orlando’s squad this season.

“We are gaining that we are having a deeper roster. All these changes are not just personal, but they are made for the model and structure as well,” he said. “It is good in some things, but sometimes you feel like in the first half today, where we don’t look like us. I don’t blame the players. I just think they are trying to adjust.”

Within a two-week window, the Lions are slated to play five games. A scoreless draw against FC Cincinnati during regular-season play on March 4 was followed by a similar result against Tigres in Monterrey, Mexico, during the Concacaf competition.

Then there was the draw at D.C. United ahead of Wednesday’s return leg against Tigres at Exploria Stadium at 8:15. After that, Orlando City will host Charlotte on Saturday.

Perhaps the biggest task within managing the roster rotations is handling the emotion and passion that comes from players who normally play on a consistent basis.

For Pareja, though, it’s about instilling a collective mindset.

“The players really don’t like the rotations because any responsible player with character always wants to play,” the coach said. “They understand this is a soccer team, and they understand the objectives, which is responding to these competitions. They have to help each other out and there will be moments where they’ll have more consistency long-term.

Rookie shines: Duncan McGuire somersaulted and backflipped as he scored his first MLS goal in his professional debut for Orlando City on Saturday.

For the 6-foot-1 forward out of Creighton University, being able to score in his first regular-season game was a dream come to fruition.

“It’s definitely something you dream of as a kid,” McGuire said. “So definitely, it’s exactly what I thought it would be. It was an unbelievable experience and I hope it’s the first of many.”

McGuire, who was selected as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2023 MLS draft and signed a pre-senior contract through this season, said he was feeling confident about scoring heading into the game against D.C. United.

The 2022 MAC Hermann Trophy winner scored in the 53rd minute.

“I definitely felt confident. I definitely went in with the mentality today that I was going to score,” he said. “I was feeling good when I woke up this morning, so I’m definitely glad that it happened. I definitely felt good about the game.”

Pareja was full of praise for the forward.

“I am very pleased. He is a young kid and very committed with the group,” Pareja said. “He is an American player who came up through the college system, which is fantastic. He has proven he is ready in the first game that he belongs, so we are very happy for him.”