Will this be the year Orlando City finally makes the playoffs? The club brought in MLS veteran boss Oscar Pareja to make sure it happens.
Pareja and Orlando begin that quest Saturday against a visiting Real Salt Lake squad looking to build on last season's strong effort.
After five seasons in MLS, Orlando is still without a playoff appearance, and perhaps more concerning, seems to have regressed from its early years of finishing seventh and eighth, respectively, in the Eastern Conference over the first two seasons. Since, City has finished no better than 10th, and 11th each of the last two years.
After recording just 28 points in 2018, Orlando improved by nine points last year, but struggled to consistently score while posting 44 goals. Enter Pareja, who guided FC Dallas to a Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup title in 2016.
"We're excited to get going," midfielder Chris Mueller, who had five assists last season, told Orlando's official website. "We've worked really hard. It's just time to get going."
While midfielders Will Johnson and Sacha Kljestan are gone, Colombian midfielder Andres Perea offers some potential excitement. Nani and Tesho Akindele, who combined for 22 goals, and fellow veteran Dom Dwyer (seven goals in 2019) are all back looking to add more consistency to the attack.
It's on the attack where RSL also would like to be more potent.
Albert Rusnak (10 goals), Sam Johnson (nine goals) Damir Kreilach (seven goals) and Corey Baird (five goals) are all capable scorers, but Salt Lake managed just 46 goals in 2019. That's why RSL went out and signed Italian forward Giuseppe Rossi (128 goals in 336 career matches).
Still, Salt Lake's backbone is its defense. The club allowed 41 goals while finishing third in the Western Conference. RSL won its first playoff game before falling 2-0 to eventual champion Seattle. It does have to replace retired MLS legendary keeper Nick Rimando, but league veteran Zac MacMath appears to be guy stepping in.
Despite the rather early exit, it proved to be a resilient season for the RSL, which endured the firings of coach Mike Petke and general manager Craig Waibel. Freddy Juarez had the interim tag shed and looks forward to a full season running the touchline for Real Salt Lake.
"The strength of this team is the collective," Juarez told RSL's official website. "It's all about the team. No one is bigger than anyone else. We have to work at that every single day. That includes everybody - the players, the coaches, the backroom staff … everybody is shooting for the same goal."
RSL ended an 0-2-2 rut against Orlando with a 2-1 home victory on April 13. Johnson and Kreilach scored for Salt Lake while Nani made things interesting in the 81st minute with Orlando's lone goal.