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Orlando City SC a revelation of MLS is Back. Are they for real under Pareja?

Throughout the MLS is Back tournament, Orlando City has performed in a way that is at odds with its history in the league. Not only has the Lions’ patient buildup been pleasing to the eye, but the team has been defensively solid, conceding three goals in four games. The results has been better, too: Orlando finished atop Group A, with wins over NYCFC and Inter Miami to go with a 1-1 draw against the red-hot Philadelphia Union, and dispatched the Montreal Impact 1-0 in the round of 16.

Then the Lions showed how they have completely broken with their brutal past, winning their quarterfinal over league powerhouse LAFC on penalties after normal time finished 1-1. Even manager Oscar Pareja, a man as even-keeled as they come, senses the stark improvement in his squad.

If we’re not the favorites to win, we accept that. It’s normal,” said Orlando manager Oscar Pareja. “But we will continue to improve. One day we will be.”

Along the way, Chris Mueller has been one of the finds of the tournament on the right side of midfield, while Nani looks revitalized on the opposite wing. Mauricio Pereyra is poised to live up to his Designated Player billing as the team’s central creative force, while Uri Rosell and Junior Urso have provided an effective bulwark in front of a back line led by Robin Jansson and Antonio Carlos.

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Now Orlando heads into Thursday’s semifinal against either Minnesota United or the San Jose Earthquakes — 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, live in the U.S. — and even if the Lions bow out, the future looks brighter than at any point since its debut season in 2015.

“We came up with a mentality of not just coming to play in the tournament. We came to set the tone for the season, and be the protagonist, because they can do it,” Pareja told ESPN in his trademark delivery…