ORLANDO, Fla. – James O’Connor isn’t leading Orlando City just because he once played for the club in its USL days.
And the former Louisville City FC coach is not in Orlando as a short-term fix.
Orlando City General Manager Niki Budalic said O’Connor, who is signed with the club through the 2020 season, is the coach who can lead Orlando City – a club mired in a franchise record eight-match losing skid in league play – to success for years to come.
Of course, O’Connor wants to change the short-term fortunes of Orlando City. The Lions (6-10-1, 19 points) are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference table, but are only four points outside of a playoff spot.
“I think you have to embrace every challenge,” O’Connor said during his introductory press conference on Monday at Orlando City Stadium.
“I think anybody who knows me knows that I’m very hungry and I’m determined to get success. I think the biggest thing for me is sitting down with the players, trying to establish a relationship with the players. When I look at the quality of players that are here, I’m genuinely really excited.”
Orlando City takes on LAFC on Saturday in Banc of California Stadium.
Budalic said O’Connor fits what the club is trying to do – from the first team to the organization’s future plans for OCB.
“This is not a situation where we feel like he needs to prove himself in six months,” Budalic told Pro Soccer USA after a Monday’s press conference. “This is a move that we feel that he can turn around this group in the short term, but also a good fit long term based on [his] identity and philosophy.”
He said Orlando City SC is “in the final phases” of relaunching OCB as a USL Division III club in 2019.
“I think the club, everyone, recognizes that its important to have an OCB or a second team or somewhere for our younger players to develop,” Budalic said.
O’Connor was selected from a vast pool of coaches for the job leading the Lions’ development.
Budalic said about “half a dozen” candidates — including former Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter — were interviewed. The GM said he spoke to more than that on the phone. Orlando City owner Flávio Augusto da Silva and CEO Alex Leitão were “intimately involved” with the process, Budalic said.
Before Orlando City’s 2-0 home loss to the Montreal Impact, Leitão said the Lions are not in rebuild mode and that there wouldn’t be much room for new signings, even after a new head coach was hired.
Budalic clarified those remarks a bit.
He said, “of course, the new coach is always going to have the authority to make changes.”
“I think it’s important to understand we’re at the beginning of a cycle,” Budalic said. “The point of that comment was to suggest that when you sign so many players at once, in one window, you have a lot of investment made in contracts. So the difficulty of transitioning players wholesale.
“I think the bigger point of that comment was to suggest was that the coach that we were going to hire was someone that was going to have confidence in this group.”
O’Connor spoke highly of Orlando City’s current roster, especially striker Dom Dwyer.
“This club has been brought up on attacking football,” O’Connor said. “That’s the biggest thing, and it’s used to winning. Certainly, in my time here, it’s always had a winning culture. I think, obviously, the transition to MLS, there’s been a huge desire to continue that.
“Will it be exciting? Will it be entertaining? That’s how my teams play. We want to be aggressive in the attack, we want to score goals. But, equally, we want to keep clean sheets and we want to win games. It’s trying to make sure there’s understanding of defense in transition and what that entails and making sure the roles and responsibilities are laid out and that people can get a good understanding.”
O’Connor isn’t too concerned with the short tenures of Orlando City’s two previous MLS coaches. Adrian Heath and Jason Kreis were both out before two complete seasons.
“I can try to control the quality of training,” he said. “I can try to control the level of preparation. They’re areas I spend a lot of time focusing on.
“If I can get that right, get the short term right, then the long term will look after itself.”
Assistant coach, player updates
Earlier Monday, O’Connor made his first appearance in training as the leader of the Lions.
He walked side-by-side with assistant coach Daniel Byrd, who came with him from Louisville City, at the training ground at Sylvan Lake Park.
Veteran winger Justin Meram, who was released from the club for three days due to “personal reasons,” and midfielder Yoshi Yotún, who was with Peru’s men’s national team for the World Cup in Russia, also attended training. Yotún has been away from the club since after its match against Toronto FC on May 18.
Assistant coach Bobby Murphy, the club’s interim head coach after the firing of Jason Kreis, and goalkeeper coach Tim Mulqueen were absent from the early portion of training open to media. Budalic confirmed both are no longer involved with Orlando City’s first team and that more announcements are on the way.
The starters from Orlando City’s 4-0 loss to Atlanta United on Saturday were also not at training. That’s not unusual — starters typically recover during the first training session after a match.
Midfielder Cristian Higuita, who is recovering from an adductor injury, trained to the side.