Do we dare think it?
Do we dare say it?
Do I dare write it?
Is it possible that Orlando City, five tumultuous and mostly miserable seasons after joining Major League Soccer, is finally turning the corner — not only on the pitch but in the front office?
That was my first thought earlier this week when team CEO Alex Leitão announced a stadium naming rights deal with Exploria Resorts that will no doubt provide another revenue stream for Orlando City to improve itself. However, it seems only appropriate that the stadium is now named after a vacation ownership company. After all, any Orlando City fan will tell you that the team’s first half-decade in MLS has felt like a never-ending timeshare presentation.
Fans, though, aren’t buying the sales pitch any longer as you can tell by the number of empty seats this season at Orlando City, er, Exploria Stadium. The club’s supporters have been more than patient through the coaching changes, front office ineptitude and roster overhauls, but now they want results, not rhetoric.
Perhaps, at long last, we are starting to see the light —at least a pin-prick of light — at the end of the tunnel. And maybe for the first time that light isn’t being emitted by an oncoming train. With a young, aggressive, no-nonsense coach (James O’Connor) and a seasoned, competent GM (Luiz Muzzi) in their first full seasons, the Lions actually look like they might have a clue and a plan.
“I’m very happy with where we are,” Leitão told Pro Soccer USA earlier this week. “I feel like we deserve more points and more wins, but I’m happy with the way we’re playing — even when we lose.”
Not that Orlando City is great by any means, but the Lions at least aren’t embarrassingly bad. They are actually playing respectably and showing progress. Orlando City had the worst defense in the history of the league last season when they broke the MLS record for most goals conceded. The Lions defense was so bad, it couldn’t have stopped the Shot Doctor from scoring at a nun’s convention. This year, City is in the top half of the league ( 11th ) in goals conceded and are 12th in goals scored. The team is in eighth place — just one point below the playoff line.
In its last match before taking a three-week Gold Cup break, the Lions went on the road and destroyed Montreal 3-0, delivering the Impact their most lopsided defeat at home in nearly three years. Leitão believes the game might have been a turning point for the franchise, particularly the final goal — a series of quick, precise, one-touch passes resulting in a Will Johnson header and providing the most exquisite example of the “The Beautiful Game” that Orlando City has ever exhibited.
“I’ve seen that goal 357 times,” Leitão says with a smile splashed across his face. “There were 22 touches in one minute and 40 seconds with absolute control of the ball. That goal showed me everything. It is how my country, Brazil, used to play the game. Goals like that are why I fell in love with the game.
“That last game for me was the pinnacle of everything I want us to be as a soccer team. We absolutely dominated the game.”
Obviously, it’s just one game and it will mean nothing if the Lions revert to their previous form and go into their annual summer swoon. If that were to happen, it would rob Leitão of the small amount of goodwill he is beginning to build up with a skeptical fan base.
It’s no secret that Leitão has received the brunt of the criticism for Orlando City’s misery and malaise. Fans blame him for everything that has gone wrong with the franchise even though he’s only been making soccer decisions for two-plus years following the sudden departure of team founder and president Phil Rawlins.
When you think about it, there are some similarities between Orlando City’s Alex (Leitão ) and the Orlando Magic’s Alex (Martins). Both are oft-criticized CEOs who finally went out and hired strong GMs and are allowing those GMs to run the show.
Martins learned from the monumental mistake of hiring and firing inexperienced GM Rob Hennigan and has since turned over all front office decisions to Jeff Weltman, the president of basketball operations. The same with Leitão, who fired inexperienced GM Niki Budalic in November and hired Muzzi as executive vice president of soccer operations.
Like Weltman, Muzzi, the highly respected former general manager of FC Dallas, brings more clout and gravitas into the organization. Which hopefully means Leitão isn’t as quick to meddle and will allow Muzzi to do his job.
A perfect example came just two weeks ago when Orlando City totally shook up its training facility plans and announced the club’s development academy, its minor league (Orlando City B) and Orlando City’s first team will all be housed at the club’s new Osceola Heritage Park training facility. It was just last year when Orlando City partnered with Montverde Academy, a private school in Clermont, to house Orlando City B and the development academy, but Muzzi convinced Leitão that it would be much better for player development if all three phases of the organization were housed under the same roof.
“We have a clear vision of how we want to play the game and I thought we needed a new person to deliver that vision,” Leitão says of Muzzi. “I have full belief and trust in Luiz’s decisions.”
This is a good thing.
We can only hope Leitão and team ownership keep trusting and continue to stay out of the way so the coaches and front office can do their jobs.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s going to be different this time.
Maybe, just maybe, this team will actually get better instead of worse as the season progresses.
Don’t blow it, Orlando City.
Don’t burn us again.