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Luiz Muzzi: Orlando City fired coach James O’Connor because he failed to reach playoffs

The Lions part ways with O’Connor after back-to-back 11th place finishes in the Eastern Conference table

Orlando City SC head coach James O'Connor was fired Monday after the Lions finished in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City’s Luiz Muzzi decided the team needed a coaching change after James O’Connor failed to deliver enough wins in his first full season as head coach.

Muzzi, the executive vice president for soccer operations, asked Lions owner Flavio Augusto da Silva and CEO Alex Leitão to approve the third coaching change in three years and three months on Monday.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t reach our goal,” Muzzi said. “We didn’t make the playoffs. It’s professional sports, and at the end of the day it’s about results. I think that we gave a lot of things to James. I think he gave a lot of things back to us, but I feel like with what we had and with the things we brought in, we had enough to make the playoffs. We’re very disappointed that we didn’t make it.”

Muzzi met with O’Connor to deliver the decision on Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the team’s final loss of the year. Orlando City has now fired three coaches in the past four seasons, previously parting with Adrian Heath in July 2016 and Jason Kreis in July 2018.

The club has yet to keep a coach on for two full seasons. Despite this pattern of turnover, however, Muzzi said he isn’t concerned about the club’s past affecting its ability to secure a new coach.

“I don’t feel it’s the same pattern,” Muzzi said. “I think that things change. If we need to make changes to make things work, we can’t be afraid of that just because people are saying we need continuity. What we need is to win. What we need is to make the playoffs.”

O’Connor was named Orlando City’s head coach midway through the 2018 season, starting on June 29 after the club fired Kreis. Under O’Connor, the Lions finished the 2018 season with a record of 2-12-3 in MLS competition and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference.

During his first full season as head coach, however, O’Connor kicked off the season with a promising start. Boosted by the acquisition of superstar Nani, the Lions opened with a series of wins that kept them in the top of the conference standings. The team’s additional success in the U.S. Open Cup — where the Lions advanced to the semifinals, the furthest in club history — added to a new feeling of optimism surrounding the club.

But the tide began to turn for O’Connor and Orlando City in August. It started when Atlanta United knocked the Lions out of the Open Cup in a 2-0 loss without the help of Josef Martinez, ending the team’s tournament run bitterly at home. The club’s focus then shifted toward clinching its first playoff berth, which quickly slipped away as the Lions fell into a skid and went winless during the final eight games of the season.

After beating Sporting KC 1-0 on Aug. 14, Orlando City failed to post another win before the end of the season. That victory had propelled the Lions to the No. 8 slot in the conference, edging the team just a point away from playoff contention. The team quickly posted back-to-back losses — at home to Atlanta, then a 3-0 blowout on the road to San Jose — that began a stumbling drop out of playoff contention.

Orlando City earned only three points in its final eight games.

“The hardest part is to have to go to the supporters and be a man and front up and thank them,” O’Connor said after Sunday’s loss to Chicago. “I’ve tried to do that after every game, to go over and make myself available to thank them. When you look at what they’ve given us throughout the course of the year… we’ve tried and tried and worked and we haven’t been able to get there. I hope they can see we tried but we just weren’t able to get there.”

Throughout O’Connor’s tenure this season, Orlando City was plagued by a lack of finishing quality in the final third. The Lions consistently created a bevy of scoring opportunities but lacked the ability to capitalize on those chances. The team particularly struggled at home, where it posted a losing record of 6-8-3, and dropped one more loss at Exploria Stadium than it did on the road.

Although the season was filled with individual successes that reflected promise for future growth — such as the debut of rookie Benji Michel and the resurgence of Tesho Akindele — the inability to convert these tangible opportunities made the season’s finish sting that much more.

“From our point of view, it was great that we were able to get in the mix for as long as we did,” O’Connor said Sunday. “We just weren’t capable of getting over that line. Everyone can see we put a strong foundation in place to be able to spring forward next year.”

Overall under O’Connor’s leadership, the Lions had an 11-27-13 record in MLS matches, finishing the 2019 campaign on Sunday in 11th place in the conference.

O’Connor took the helm of the club six months before Muzzi entered as executive vice president of soccer operations. At the time, Muzzi said that he considered starting fresh with a new coach, but ultimately decided to give O’Connor the chance to lead the team for a full season.

“When I came in, he was already here,” Muzzi said. “The decision was made to keep him. I could have made a change right there… [but] it was not fair to just bring him in and then four months later let him go. He never had a chance at that point.”

Although Muzzi said that there was never an ultimatum for O’Connor regarding postseason results, he said that the expectation of a playoff berth was understood throughout the club. Without reaching that minimum goal, he said O’Connor didn’t line up as a strong fit for the position.

Now, Muzzi is eager to select a coach who aligns fully with his vision for the club.

“I feel like there are things that we just don’t agree on,” Muzzi said of O’Connor. “There’s a lot of that that I put on myself. He’s a guy that I didn’t bring in. I feel like we’ve got a better chance moving forward. James is gonna be a great coach. He’s already a great coach.”

Although the team improved drastically on the defensive end, ceding 22 fewer goals than it did in 2018, that only lifted the team one slot higher in the conference rankings. On the offensive end, Orlando City improved by only one goal despite the addition of Nani. Muzzi said that increasing the team’s offensive firepower will be a major focus of the coaching search, with a goal of finding an entertaining and attack-oriented manager.

Although the coaching search will be a familiar challenge for the club, this will mark the first time since Heath’s tenure that Orlando City has the opportunity to start a coach fresh in the offseason. Muzzi said he will lead a search that will commence immediately, and he hopes to complete it well before the end of the year.

“I think that we’re gonna get better,” Muzzi said. “It’s difficult to ask for patience, but that’s what I’m asking for because it’s a slow process. I think if they see the pieces that we have in place, they’re gonna see that we’re gonna continue to get better.”

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