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Orlando City working to fulfill coach James O’Connor’s vision

New England Revolution forward Juan Agudelo (17) battles Orlando City SC midfielder Cristian Higuita (7) during the second half of a match at Orlando City Stadium. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

Coach James O’Connor has been at the helm of Orlando City for six league matches.

During those matches, the Lions have gone 1-4-1 (4 points). The Lions’ attack has been solid enough, but the defending has been woeful at times.

It takes time to implement new ideas, and O’Connor was hired in the middle of the summer, with the Lions mired in a franchise-record losing streak. But O’Connor wants to win, and Orlando City still has a shot – slim though it may be – to make the playoffs.

O’Connor said Orlando City isn’t quite where he wants it to be in terms of how he’d like to see the club playing. The Lions (7-14-2, 23 points) have another opportunity to put O’Connor’s plans into practice with a match against D.C. United (4-9-6, 18 points) at Audi Field on Sunday.

“I think we’re getting closer,” O’Connor said. “I think we’ve had performances where there’s been aspects of it. I think we can come away think, ‘OK, we’re encouraged with that.’ There’s still areas where we think we need to get better. I definitely think we’re getting closer, but I still think there’s a few more layers and we can get to exactly where we want to be.”

The obvious area Orlando City needs to fix is the defense. The Lions have given up 12 goals over a four-match winless streak. Twice in that span the club has given up a late goal, and last week against New England, the Lions gave up two early goals and had to claw their way back to salvage a draw at home.

Orlando City has conceded a league-high 54 goals so far this season. As of Saturday morning, the Lions are the only group to have given up at least 50 goals in MLS play this season. The club’s goal differential is -19.

“I think people just look at just the defenders,” O’Connor said. “I think for all of us, I think when you look at it, you know, we’re very capable of scoring goals, so I think the logical thing is to stop conceding them. That’s the biggest thing.

“I think when you look at our goals against, there’s way too many. That’s something that we need to be way more intentional about trying to understand and implement and stop that. I think we’ve definitely got a capacity to score goals. I think, at times, our play going forward has been excellent. We need to be a little bit more consistent.

“There’s loads of encouraging signs, it’s now just a case of bringing it all together and trying to be a little bit stronger in keeping the ball out of the back of the net.”

With the season winding down, players are also trying to quickly grasp and implement what O’Connor wants to do. Rookie striker Chris Mueller agreed with his coach and said the Lions are improving, but are still lacking in certain areas.

He added Orlando City’s defensive woes are “obvious.”

“We’re going to sort those problems out, but other than that, you see it in the games, we’re creating a lot of chances,” he said. “We’re scoring a lot of goals, so we want to continue to do that, but also clean up the other end of the pitch.”

Defensive midfielder Cristian Higuita said he’s seen improvement but – like just about everyone involved with the club – thinks the Lions’ defense needs to improve.

“We’re acquiring an idea,” he said through a translator. “We still have a long way to go, but I think, step by step, we’re getting where [O’Connor] wants us to be.”

O’Connor said he wants the Lions’ defense to click in the same way its attack has in recent matches.

“The first line of defense starts with the striker. Equally, with how we’re starting to attack, the guy who scores gets all the credit, but a lot of times the start from the back, we start attacking with the goalkeeper, we’re trying to play out.

“I think, for us, it’s trying to get better understanding of defensive principals, expectations and then execution. They’re the three factors that we need to cover and try to make sure we’re on point with. Honestly, [I’m] trying to make sure there’s better communication from myself to allow for better understanding.”

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