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Orlando City coach James O’Connor ignores naysayers, says Lions will be successful in 2019

Orlando City head coach James O'Connor looks up in front of New York Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas during the second half at Red Bull Arena. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City coach James O’Connor started planning for the 2019 season six weeks ago.

He has no interest in dwelling on his first half-season with Orlando City. He went 2-12-3 at the helm and – because he hasn’t already been fired – is ready to hit the ground running preparing for next season.

O’Connor said there’s a “desperation from the front office” to deliver a winning product to Central Florida.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had assurances [that his job is safe], but the fact that I’m not sacked would suggest that I’m going to be here,” O’Connor told Pro Soccer USA while smiling in his office at Orlando City Stadium.

“I think, realistically, if the club is going to go in a different direction, then do it now. Do you know what I mean? Again, for me, I’ve got a great relationship with [CEO] Alex [Leitão] and a great relationship with [owner] Flávio [Augusto Da Silva]. Genuinely, I think the way sometimes that they get portrayed … they have a fantastic desire to win.

“When I look at the investment that Flávio has put into the club, I really feel for him. Genuinely. I have every intention of making sure that we all get what we want. Flávio, Alex, [GM] Niki [Budalić], myself, the players, the supporters – we all want the same thing. We all need to come together and we all need to focus on making sure we all drive toward making the playoffs.”

Orlando City finished its regular season on Sunday with a 1-0 loss to the Supporters’ Shield-winning New York Red Bulls. The Lions finished the season at 8-22-4 (28 points)  and conceded an MLS-record 74 goals.

Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, at one point, said the issues can’t be fixed with just one offseason.

“I’ll make it akin to there was a youth coach when I was at Stoke,” O’Connor said. “I was 16 and I was in England two weeks and I was told I would never make it as a soccer player. I was told, ‘You’re not good enough. You give the ball away. You’re this, you’re this, you’re this.’ Had I listened to him, I never [would have] been able to go on and achieve the wonderful memories I have of being a professional soccer player.

“I’m not saying that I don’t respect Sacha’s opinion, but equally, I have no intention of listening to anybody who tries to tell me that we’re not going to be successful next year. I don’t believe that.”

O’Connor said he’s already had conversations with players regarding who will be back next year.

“I thought the meetings were all very amicable,” O’Connor said. “I thought they were all very professional. I think there’s a general excitement from some because I think they’re excited about the intensity that we’re going to have in preseason, the intensity that we’re going to be able to generate.

“For some, there’s obviously disappointment, but that’s the industry that we’re in.”

Some supporters have expressed displeasure with Orlando City SC. Plus, toward the end of the season, there were noticeable gaps in the stands at Orlando City Stadium.

Speaking to Pro Soccer USA, O’Connor took an opportunity to directly address the frustrated fans who might not come back next season.

“I would ask for one more opportunity, to really be given an opportunity to show you what we will be like in preseason, what we will be like at the start of next year,” O’Connor said. “I would candidly tell you, you’re probably going to miss out on a fantastic and very, very special year.”

Orlando City will spend 13 days at IMG Academy for preseason training, which  O’Connor has said will be a critical component for the Lions next season. Toward the end of the season, O’Connor said multiple times coming in midseason meant he didn’t get a chance to implement the culture that can only be installed during preseason training.  

“The first foundation is me and you are going through a hell-like experience,” O’Connor said. “Without question, there’s going to be a bond that’s generated  because I’m going to have a healthy respect for you and you’re going to have a healthy respect for me. In essence, that’s what preseason is going to be like for the players.

“It’ll be really tough. It’ll be a hard experience where they are going to be pushed and they’re going to need their teammates to support them and that will create a level of respect and hopefully create a bond that will then be enhanced by doing social gatherings, but the relationship aspect becomes really important.”

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