In order to make a run in a competition like Leagues Cup, depth is always key.

Orlando City SC head coach Oscar Pareja is well aware of that reality going into his second season on the sidelines for the Lions, who are one of four MLS teams to qualify for the return edition of the tournament that will pit some of the league’s top clubs against Liga MX competition. Asked on a video call this week if he feels his team has the horses to make a Leagues Cup run, or if they would need to make some more additions to the roster, Pareja said he feels as though his team is ready to prove its mettle.

To hear the coach tell it, it isn’t just about the quality of his current Orlando City group, which emerged as an Eastern Conference front-runner in 2020. It’s also about the growth of the league as a whole.

“We don’t have any hesitation to face any team in Mexico, South America or any part of the world,” Pareja said. “I don’t say that just optimistically. I say that after a year coaching in Mexico and after my experiences for 25 years in my country that is phenomenal. But having the experience now to see how Major League Soccer is growing I don’t hesitate to say that this going to be one of the best leagues in the world.

“We’re very proud to belong to this process and even prouder to see our youngsters go and show everybody what Major League Soccer is producing. So, the Leagues Cup and international [competitions] are very welcome to us and we are ready to compete.”

Leagues Cup is returning in 2021 after last year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Liga MX side Cruz Azul won the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2019.

Orlando City, meanwhile, are contending with all-around heightened expectations coming off last year’s breakout campaign as an MLS club. The Lions managed a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference last season and made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history. 

As they look to take another step forward in 2021, Pareja said he feels as though the experience his team accrued during an adversity-riddled 2020 gives him confidence that his team will be ready to handle whatever is thrown at them this year, whether it’s injuries or the inevitable squad rotation necessitated by a hectic schedule.

“It is true, last year we experienced something that was very unique and being in the middle of the pandemic and playing in the bubble, trying to overcome all those challenges — it just taught us that [depth] is very important, having a roster that can cover any emergency during the year,”  Pareja said. “Sometimes there are injuries, sometimes the [congestion] of the calendar, when you see the 34 games and how they laid it out, it will be challenging for some weeks. This year, I hope that we have guys that are ready, that already have a year on their shoulders with us, they can start having much more minutes.

“And even the guys we just signed, they’re trying to adapt to the rhythm, and they know that they’re going to be important. We need them all. It’s a long season, 34 games, plus Leagues Cup and hopefully Open Cup too. It’s going to create a necessity to use them all.”

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