ORLANDO — Orlando City is – once again – undergoing a culture shift. Players, Orlando City’s front office and the team’s coach have all commented on it ahead of the team’s season opener against NYCFC.
In particular, club CEO Alex Leitão is looking to make sure this shift is one that lasts. There was talk of a culture shift last season, and 2018 was a disaster for the Lions.
Leitão told Pro Soccer USA he was avoiding distractions – including Twitter — while assessing everything that happened during the Lions’ 2018 campaign, which was the worst in the club’s four-year MLS history.
“A lot happened in order for us to be at this stage, looking [forward to] Saturday with a lot of excitement and, in my opinion, in a very good shape,” Leitao said during an interview with Pro Soccer USA. “I took time to really look internally and really put a lot of work on it.”
After reflecting, it was about making sure head coach James O’Connor, executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi and director of scouting Ricardo Moreira – three men who weren’t with the team at the start of the 2018 season — were all on the same page.
Leitão said changing the culture wasn’t just about changing people running the show.
“It’s really coming from the mentality that we want from the players that we want,” Leitão said. “The way we as a club have the relationship with the players. More close to them with people around understanding what’s going on. In terms of injury, we were one of the worst last year, so how can we prevent that? How can we do a proper and better preseason in order to avoid having injuries in the middle of the season?
“We looked to all the aspects of that. Who should be up front? Who should be more out there from the organization? All the aspects of the team. Instead of just looking for individual performances of the club, it’s really all of the departments, at the end of the day, have impact on the field performances. Looked for best practices, looked for clubs that do better than us. Learning from our own mistakes and then trying to do better.”
Muzzi said the club understands what went wrong. Now, it’s time to deliver success.
“I think there’s been a lot of valleys and sometimes those valleys have been a little too long,” Muzzi said.
Raising his hands up and down to simulate peaks and valleys, Muzzi said, “That’s a challenge with everything, I think. Once you get here, you know there’s going to be a little drop, but you have to come up again. You have to be here. You can’t allow yourself to just boom, drop down.”
Veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan said the culture shift is noticeable when you look at what players are doing with their spare time, among other things.
Members of the team are watching soccer. A small thing, but something that makes the difference when talking about who wants to get better, Kljestan said.
“A thing, for me, that we lacked a lot last year was guys that actually watched soccer outside of ourselves,” Sacha said. “So, guys that were talking about watching Champions League games, watching the Premier League, watching La Liga, watching Liga MX, watching other MLS games. Last year, that part for me … was at, like, the lowest level I’ve ever seen in my life.
“A lot of the younger guys, I would say the two in particular that impress me are Cam Lindley and Chris Mueller, who are constantly watching and talking about soccer. It shows me that they want to become better every day. I think part of getting better is watching the highest level and seeing what that takes.”
O’Connor said he’s noticed that particular shift.
“I’m always looking at ways to improve,” O’Connor said. “I want to be around people that want to improve. I don’t like people to be static and to believe that they have all the answers. I most definitely have a growth mindset. I want the players to have that same appetite. I think with ambition should come growth.”
O’Connor said while investing in molding a new team culture, he’s focused on making sure there isn’t a dropoff in quality when a player goes down due to injury.
“Too often, if certain personnel are missing, the next man up maybe struggles to fulfill that role, whether it’s fitness, whether it’s mentality, whether it’s attitude or whatever it is,” O’Connor said. “Our goal is to make sure there’s a seamless transition to any personnel changes that are made.”
Is there moment when it’s clear the attempted culture shift has taken hold?
“Not six weeks in,” O’Connor said with a laugh.
He added, “I think that something that you’re never going to feel as if you ever achieve perfection. You’re always going to strive for perfection. We feel as if we’ve made some great strides.”