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Orlando City believes it is on cusp of hard-earned revival, run to playoffs

Orlando City executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, left; Nani, center; and coach James O'Connor all see a bright future for the Lions. (Jordan Culver-Pro Soccer USA)

Orlando City CEO Alex Leitão, channeling his inner Mark Twain, has a message for the hateful Twitter troll who posted a message last season saying fans would celebrate wildly on the day Leitão dies.

Just as Twain himself once said, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Leitão says he and his soccer club are about to rise up from their comatose state and prove they are, in fact, alive and ready to kick grass and take names.

“Nobody wants be hated,” Leitão says of the barrage of social-media negativity at the end of last season. “Nobody wants to see a fan post something like, ‘The day Alex dies, there will be a party.’ The problem is my daughters look at those things and I have to sit them down and say, ‘Hey, they don’t really hate me. It’s about football.’ ”

Leitão chooses to look at the positive when it comes to supporters who are the most negative.

“Those are the passionate ones,” he says. “Those are the ones who are going to change what they say and think when we start winning.”

The winning, or at least some significant progress toward winning, must begin this season for a club that has been an utter disappointment on the pitch since it joined MLS four seasons ago. Instead of getting progressively better, Orlando City has gotten progressively worse. In Year 1, the Lions finished seventh in the Eastern Conference with 44 points and barely missed the playoffs. In Year 2, they finished eighth in the standings with 41 points. In Year 3, they finished 10th with 39 points.

And then last year, the bottom completely fell out when they were the second-worst team in the league with 28 points, had a defense that yielded more goals than any club in the history of MLS and endured a nine-game losing streak that was the third-longest in league annals.

When asked how important it is to show fans this season that the club is moving in the right direction, Leitao does not mince words.

“It’s massive,” he says. “I totally understand the pressure is on us. We HAVE to deliver. We understand what the fans are looking for and nobody wants it more than me. Nobody!”

To say this is a critical season would be an understatement. It is absolutely imperative that Orlando City get it right this time. The Lions have a new roster full of players, a new superstar (Nani), a new general manager/executive vice president of soccer operations (Luiz Muzzi) and a coach (James O’Connor) who is beginning what hopefully will be his first full season at the helm.

Of course, there is bound to be skepticism and cynicism — as there should be. After all, O’Connor is the third coach in the franchise’s four-year MLS history; Muzzi is the third GM; and we’ve certainly seen this club rebuild its roster numerous times in the past.

In fact, last year at this time, all the talk was about how the roster had been rebuilt with players hand-picked to fit former coach Jason Kreis’ system. There was talk about a culture change; players who are hungry and dedicated to winning; and blah, blah, blah.

Kreis was fired less than halfway through the season.

This year, there is also talk of the roster being rebuilt with players hand-picked to fit O’Connor’s system. There is talk about a culture change; players who are hungry and dedicated to winning; and yada, yada, yada.

Here’s hoping beyond hope that Orlando City will finally get it right for the sake of its phenomenal supporters. It’s no secret that as bad as City has been on the pitch, the club’s fans have stuck with them through all of the failed plans, broken dreams and fired coaches. The lowest announced attendance last season was 22,337 and the average announced attendance 23,866. Orlando City ranked sixth in the league in attendance behind Atlanta, Seattle, Toronto, the L.A. Galaxy and Minnesota.

Even Orlando City’s veteran players know that the team needs to live up to the reputation of its fan base.

Says star striker Dom Dwyer: “It’s time; it’s really time. The stage is set for us. We have everything in place, and now it’s time for us to perform.”

Adds Sacha Kljestan, an eloquent and introspective midfielder: “It should be extremely obvious that if you’re going to talk about Orlando City over the last four years, you’re not talking about the play on the field because it’s not been good enough. You’re talking about the stadium and the fan atmosphere. As a team, we need to show the character that represents the way our fans have supported us through the bad times. I hope this year we can make them proud.”

In every metric you can think of, Orlando is considered an elite MLS market. Every metric, that is, except for the performance of our team. Other young franchises that came into the league at the same time or after Orlando City — Atlanta United FC, New York City FC and Los Angeles FC — have left the Lions in their dust.

Even so, the supporters — those chanting, ranting, enchanting supporters — still believe in Orlando City.

As Leitão says, even the most noxious, negative fans will flip as soon as this team starts winning

Let’s not write them off just yet.

Let’s give them one more chance.

Let’s believe that the rumors of Orlando City’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Pro Soccer USA and the Orlando Sentinel have partnered to deliver a four-page season Orlando City and MLS season preview. You can find the preview in the Saturday edition of the Orlando Sentinel. You can also read more about the Lions and the rest of the league at ProSoccerUSA.com.

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