Orlando City has been a stingy defensive side early in the season ever since Oscar Pareja took over as head coach. Through the starts of the last four seasons, the Lions have managed to get better and better at keeping the opposition from scoring to kick off a new campaign. That has been illustrated through three competitive matches in 2023, as the Lions have yet to allow a goal — the club’s longest such stretch to start a new season.
Let’s jump into the numbers.
Prior to Pareja’s arrival, Orlando City had only recorded one clean sheet on opening day — the 1-0 victory over New York City FC in 2017 to open the building now known as Exploria Stadium. Cyle Larin’s goal that day was the difference as the Lions kept their first opening day clean sheet in the MLS era.
That was the club’s only opening day shutout in five seasons prior to Pareja becoming head coach. Under Pareja, the Lions have kept a clean sheet on opening day in four straight seasons starting in 2020. But the team has also built upon that every year.
After a season-opening scoreless draw against Real Salt Lake in 2020, the Lions conceded in four straight before shutting out Montreal in the MLS is Back Tournament knockout rounds. To be fair, that was a weird year that included a months-long, leaguewide shutdown after the second game.
But the Lions improved upon that in 2021. Orlando City opened the season with another scoreless draw — this time against Atlanta United. The Lions gave up one goal at Sporting Kansas City in the second week but then kept another clean sheet against FC Cincinnati in their third game, and then posted back-to-back shutouts in their fifth and sixth game against D.C. United and Toronto FC, respectively. That’s a shutout in two of the first three matches and four of the first six.
In 2022, Pareja’s third in Orlando, the Lions posted consecutive shutouts to open a season for the first time, blanking CF Montreal and the Chicago Fire. Orlando City earned clean sheets in three of the first four games and in five of the club’s first eight matches.
Pareja’s fourth season in Orlando has begun with three consecutive clean sheets in all competitions, with an opening-day win over the New York Red Bulls and consecutive scoreless draws against FC Cincinnati and at Tigres UANL. The Lions became just the sixth MLS team to keep a clean sheet in an away game against a Liga MX side on Tuesday night, thanks in large part to Pedro Gallese’s eight saves.
What has become normal under Pareja at the start of the season was never previously that way since the Lions jumped to Major League Soccer. Orlando conceded once in the 2015 season opener before getting a clean sheet at Houston in Week 2. In 2016, City conceded three times across the first two matches before earning a shutout in a 1-0 win at New York City FC. In 2017, after the shutout win to open the season in their new stadium — again vs. NYCFC — the Lions then conceded three times over their next two matches before earning another clean sheet.
Things were worse in 2018, when Orlando City conceded 10 times in five games before recording a 2-0 shutout win at Philadelphia. In 2019, the club gave up six goals in three games before shutting out the New York Red Bulls 1-0 on the road.
Obviously, there’s some luck involved in any clean sheet. Balls can bounce off of people or posts unexpectedly. But the combination of good positioning, determination, and just a bit of luck has helped Orlando City prevent goals early in the year during Pareja’s tenure.
The current streak could end at D.C. United on Saturday or next Wednesday against Tigres. At this point, there’s no way of knowing. But what we can tell from the last four years is that the Lions have been difficult to score on at the start of the year since Papi took over. It might not be coincidental that Gallese has been in goal those four years, but it takes more than a world-class goalkeeper to prevent the opposition from scoring.
Now scoring by Orlando City’s offense, on the other hand, is a story for another day.