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Orlando City coach James O’Connor defends Lions’ rebuilding efforts amid criticism

Orlando City SC head coach James O'Connor looks on during the second half against the Philadelphia Union at Orlando City Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City coach James O’Connor knows there will be opinions and criticism as he works to turn the Lions’ fortunes around.

O’Connor was hired midseason and coached his first game in July after the firing of Jason Kreis, who was brought in after the midseason firing of Adrian Heath in 2016. Orlando City has never made the playoffs.

While O’Connor has insisted – as recently as Saturday – that he and his staff will be able to turn things around, there has still been outside criticism. During a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Fire, FS1 broadcaster Stu Holden said the Lions have quit on the season.

Before a 0-0 draw with the Houston Dynamo, O’Connor’s starting XI, which included several defensive midfielders, drew more criticism.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman posted on Twitter how many of the 11 players who started Saturday’s match for Orlando would be around in 2019 and said, “I just don’t get it Orlando.” MLSSoccer.com analyst Matthew Doyle wrote on Twitter “OCSC fans deserve better.”

Doyle added, “Zero players on the field under the age of 26. Building for the future! SMH”

Responding specifically to Twellman and Doyle’s criticisms, O’Connor on Wednesday told Pro Soccer USA, “I think: How do they know what the future is? I think for them, they’re not in charge of Orlando.”

Twellman’s and Doyle’s concerns can be found elsewhere on social media in the form of Orlando City fans hoping to see minutes from youngsters like Josué Colmán and Pierre Da Silva as the season winds down.

“I think, for us when we’re looking at the future, we look at next year,” O’Connor said. “We look at two years. We look at three years. People will look five years, 10 years. It depends on what it is that you mean by that.

“We did play some of the younger players the week before. There will be more games for some of the younger players. We think there are some games coming up as well. Football is about opinions. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion; everyone has their own viewpoint, so it’s not a big deal for me.”

After Saturday’s draw, O’Connor said he originally hoped to turn things around and lead Orlando City to a playoff berth this season when he was hired in June. By the time he coached his first match on July 7, Orlando City had lost eight consecutive matches after a six-match win streak.

“That was, obviously, maybe a little bit too ambitious, as I found out, personally,” O’Connor said during his post-match press conference. “But again, it hasn’t made me lose any kind of belief in what we’re doing. I have a full understanding of what’s needed and, rest assured, we’ll be able to get what we want next year.”

O’Connor said preseason training before the start of the 2019 season is going to be important for Orlando City. He added the offseason will be “extremely important.”

“We have a way of working,” he said. “We do, generally, like to high-press teams. I think for us, coming in midseason and assessing everything has been certainly a new experience for us. We’re used to having a group of players that we’ve selected and, obviously, we’ve had a preseason. We’ve gone through sort of the roles and responsibilities.

“Midseason, I think you come into an environment that’s completely different. So you have to assess the environment. You have to look at players — what they can do, what they can’t do. I think the process of analyzing everything, trying to get an understanding of where we are whilst also trying to get positive results, I think for us when we look at it for where we want [to be], we’ve been really disappointed with the results. That’s something that I’m very open about.”

The Lions (7-18-4, 25 points) are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table and don’t play again until Oct. 6 against FC Dallas. Orlando City has five matches remaining this season and still has a chance to avoid the worst points total in franchise history. The Lions would have to win out to do that.

O’Connor’s squad is also trying to avoid giving up the most goals in a season in MLS history. The Lions have conceded 66 goals, four away from the record 70 Minnesota United gave up last season.

“For me, people are always going to have their opinions, and good luck to them,” O’Connor said.

“I have no issues with anyone stating their opinion. I think, for them, when they’re saying the future … for me, when I look at the future I think there’s lots of players that will be involved. There’s lots of players that have potential to be involved. There will be some players that, like every other team, won’t be involved.”

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