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Orlando City coach James O’Connor confident in rebuilding plan after dismal season

Orlando City SC head coach James O'Connor (right) high fives fans after defeating the Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City Stadium. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City’s 2018 season went wrong in just about every way imaginable.

The club’s marquee signings spent a good chunk of the season injured – and one big-time signing demanded to be sent away.

A hot start didn’t just fizzle out with the summer months – the Lions crashed and burned once May rolled around and won a single game between May 7 and Oct. 20.  

Jason Kreis, the man who started the season at the helm of a team built to his specifications, was fired midway through the campaign. Kreis’ replacement, James O’Connor, despite club CEO Alex Leitão telling reporters the new coach would be expected to win now, went 2-12-3 as the head coach.

It wasn’t the year anyone expected. The Lions ended the year in last place in the Eastern Conference with an 8-22-4 (28 points) record and conceded an MLS-record 74 goals.

After a year multiple players described as the hardest of their careers, O’Connor is left to pick up the pieces and move forward.

The question everyone is asking is what went wrong.

O’Connor is more concerned with doing the right things moving forward than assigning blame for a season of disappointment.

“I’m not interested in trying to throw stones or make any kind of excuses or anything like that,” O’Connor said. “I was the coach, I came in halfway through, so my interest is making sure that everyone is re-energized and focused on being really successful next year.”

Front office

Orlando City’s front office has been eerily silent for months this season. Multiple requests by Pro Soccer USA for interviews with Leitão and majority owner Flávio Augusto da Silva dating back to July were not fulfilled by the club.

The last time Leitão addressed a group of reporters was June 23, before O’Connor was hired. Leitão said he expected whoever took over for Kreis to win.

Da Silva has not spoken to reporters since September when Orlando City Stadium earned the right to host the 2019 MLS All-Star Game.

At the time, Da Silva endorsed O’Connor, despite the latter’s lack of success.

Niki Budalić, who has come under fire from vocal fans on social media, told Pro Soccer USA in October more answers about the Lions’ roster would be coming at the end of the season. At the time, he referenced the injuries the team has dealt with all season, as well as new players needing time to bond.

O’Connor said moving forward, player decisions will come down to him and Budalić. The coach also endorsed the current front office personnel. 

“I look at the investment that Flávio has made,” O’Connor said. “I look at the support I’ve had since I’ve been here, and I have no issue with it. For me, it’s being very intentional now about utilizing this time, about understanding what it is that we want to achieve next year, implementing the plan that we’ve spoken about, making sure that the process is firm and is adhered to and that we get the things that we’re looking for.

“We need a stronger mentality. We want the culture to be in the environment that I’m used to, that creates the expected behavior from each other and that we go, and we come out all guns blazing, and we come out roaring at the start of next year.”

Coaching change

O’Connor was hired from USL side Louisville City FC with Orlando City mired in a franchise-record losing skid in MLS play.

The skid followed a six-match win streak. The matches played during the win streak were close and the Lions frequently flirted with disaster, but Orlando City won six matches in a row after a 0-2-1 start.

Then Orlando City lost a match to Atlanta United on May 13.

Things went sideways from there. After loss No. 6 in the skid – a 3-0 loss to the Montreal Impact that Kreis said he hoped was the lowest point of the season – Kreis requested a meeting with Da Silva.

It was during that meeting that a blindsided Kreis was fired by Da Silva with Orlando City still clinging to sixth place. As much as O’Connor talks about having a plan, Kreis was someone else with a long-term plan he never got a chance to implement. 

The six-game losing streak wasn’t a good look. Spirits were obviously low after the loss to the Impact. The loss came at the end of a grueling road trip, and on the plane ride back to Orlando from Montreal, players barely said anything.

Still, Kreis was confident if he had more time, he could have helped the existing roster get back on track.

The team was dealing with several key player injuries and lost five of the six matches that Kreis coached during the losing streak without all-star midfielder Yoshimar Yotún.

O’Connor’s tenure

Confidence was at a low point when O’Connor took over. Still, after a 4-1 loss to LAFC in O’Connor first match, O’Connor delivered a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC in his home debut.

Despite some solid performances over the next few matches, the Lions couldn’t get another win.

The performances were good, but not good enough. In fact, the Lions didn’t appear to be a downright bad team until facing the Chicago Fire on Sept. 16.

Orlando City’s losses under O’Connor before that dismal afternoon included:

  • A 3-2 loss to Columbus Crew SC that turned on an incorrect late penalty awarded to the Crew
  • A 2-0 home loss to NYCFC where the Lions hit the woodwork four times
  • A 4-3 road loss to the L.A. Galaxy where the Galaxy were fueled by superstar forward Zlatan Ibrahimović’s first MLS hat trick
  • A 3-2 home loss to D.C. United where a 10-man Orlando City side couldn’t take advantage of an empty-net counterattack and instead gave up the match-winning goal in the final seconds

Matches that were close. Matches that included passages of play that O’Connor was desperate to see.

Still, at the end of the day, they were matches that were lost.

Then the 4-0 loss to the Chicago Fire happened. In a half-empty Toyota Park, the Lions showed little fight and got blasted on the road. National broadcasters said Orlando City’s players had given up on the season at that point. O’Connor questioned the character of some of his players.

“The one game that I thought brought tremendous disappointment to everyone was the Chicago game,” O’Connor said.

He added he doesn’t think members of his team quit. He said, looking at physical data, it looked like some of Orlando City’s players couldn’t handle the workload.

“I think, when we looked at the trends, from a physical capacity, it was more a case of maybe physically some people couldn’t do it and then people assume that they’re not trying or assume that they’re quitting,” O’Connor said.

“It was very important for us to make sure that we didn’t have anyone who quit, that people were trying and giving their maximum effort.”

O’Connor finished his first half-season 2-12-3 and said he spent the later parts of the season planning for 2019.

“People will make judgments on the half-year,” O’Connor said. “They’ll come in and say, ‘OK. This is James O’Connor’s team.’ It’s easy for me to come out and say, ‘Oh yeah it’s this or it’s this or it’s that.’

“Honestly, I don’t want to waste my time trying to say that. I want my time to be spent on getting what we need to bring success next year. I’m a very thick-skinned individual. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve played a lot. I played for some big teams back in England where there’s high expectations. When you don’t meet those expectations, you get some stick.”

Turning point

As the issues piled up – on and off the pitch – it became apparent that not only would O’Connor not lead Orlando City to the playoffs in 2018, but there were deeper issues within the club.

Winger Justin Meram told MLSSoccer.com that he didn’t really get along with his teammates before he was traded back to Columbus Crew SC. Sacha Kljestan said players weren’t buying into building a winning culture. After the loss to D.C. United, there were reports of a locker room scuffle. This came after several instances during which players could be seen yelling at each other during games.

“We had a wonderful opportunity to go and win the game and in the blink of an eye it’s gone,” O’Connor said about the aftermath of the loss to D.C. United.

“I think everyone at that point had just reached a level of frustration where it was like, ‘God, this is just incredible.’ But there was no fight, no fistfight or anything like that. That was the thing that, for me, I found interesting because people almost wanted there to be that to be able to say, ‘Oh well look. The players hate each other, and this is the reason.’”

“When you have a situation like that, people are always trying to find the answer to the problem. To say, ‘Oh! That’s the reason why it is the way it is.’ They want to be the one that says, ‘I figured it out! This is what it is!’ Do you know what I mean? Unfortunately, that’s the way it is.”

Most of Orlando City’s players had trouble coming up with answers when asked when the season turned. Some pointed to the losing streak. Others said team camaraderie eventually took a turn for the worse.

Midfielder Kljestan, in particular, was critical of the team’s culture and what he saw as a lack of dedication to building a winning mentality. Near the end of the season, he said he didn’t think Orlando City’s problems could be fixed with just one offseason.

“For me, the two things are culture and mentality,” O’Connor said. “That’s the biggest thing. I don’t necessarily look and think we had really bad players, I just think the culture and the mentality were not what they needed to be.”

O’Connor frequently pointed back to the team’s defending.

“You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand when you’ve conceded the amount of goals that we have, where we want to try to strengthen,” O’Connor said.

He added, “The defensive transition piece was something that I kept speaking about. I think, when you look at the volume of goals we conceded, that has to change. You cannot achieve success when you concede the volume of goals… you cannot go to L.A. Galaxy and score the goals we did at L.A. Galaxy and not win the win the game. That can’t happen.”

New players

Many of Orlando City’s biggest offseason acquisitions were, at best, inconsistent.  

Bundesliga centerback Lamine Sané dealt with knee and quad injuries that caused him to miss more than half the season.

Meram became the target of fan ire and was eventually sent back to the Crew in exchange for $750,000 in Targeted Allocation Money, a 2019 international roster spot and a handshake agreement that he wouldn’t play against Orlando City in the Lions’ home finale.

Josué Colmán showed flashes of individual brilliance, but the youngster never quite found his way on the pitch.

Uri Rosell? Great when healthy. Amro Tarek? A strong start but fizzled after leaving for international duty prior to the World Cup and also battled injuries. Adam Grinwis didn’t get an opportunity to play until the end of the season.

Jose Villarreal didn’t play much and eventually suffered an ankle injury. Chris Schuler was used sparingly when starters were injured, which was also the case for RJ Allen.  Dillon Powers didn’t start a single match.

Rookie Chris Mueller was a bright spot and played well enough to be named a Rookie of the Year finalist, but his form dipped with the team’s performance. Fellow rookie Cam Lindley barely played after the start of the season but was called up to the MLS Homegrown Game.

Kljestan was solid but didn’t come close to matching his success with the New York Red Bulls.

In fact, it could be argued that when it comes to new players, Orlando City got the most production out of summer signees Shane O’Neill and Carlos Ascues.

Orlando City plans to hold off on announcing roster decisions until closer to Nov. 25 when the Lions will choose whether to exercise club options.

“Obviously, in a situation like that for some players who are staying, it’s an easier conversation,” O’Connor said. “For ones maybe that aren’t, it can be a little bit tricky.

“I think, for us, it’s trying to bring some closure to it. I think for the players, that’s probably the biggest thing as well. I think for the supporters, for ourselves, as a club, we want the closure to happen and we want the process to kick in to start next year.”

O’Connor said none of the players he met with expressed a desire to leave Orlando and that the meetings were amicable.

Designated player Dom Dwyer never stopped trying to score, although he could find little breathing room once opponents knew he was the Lions’ only scoring threat. Yotún left Orlando City for the World Cup with the Lions only two games removed from a six-game win streak and returned after Kreis was fired. 

Yotún and Scott Sutter remained the most upbeat players during media interviews, insisting the team had to keep fighting every single day to improve and hoping they will get to be part of the solution next season.

O’Connor wanted to connect positively with each player during the exit interviews. 

“The way I am as a person, I don’t really want to have conversations where it’s almost seen as aggressive or anything like that,” he said. “I want to listen. I want to pay attention to what people are coming out with. What their viewpoint is. I’ll obviously share my experience, share my view of how it’s gone.”

The future

So, what’s next? How does Orlando City turn this around? What hope do supporters have to cling to after the club’s worst MLS season?

O’Connor has a plan for the preseason. Pro Soccer USA recently confirmed the club has a new director of scouting, and O’Connor has spoken highly of him. O’Connor said he’s working to address the multitude of soft tissue injuries suffered by the Lions throughout the season.

“I can only speak about my experiences as a coach and we’re used to having minimal soft tissue injuries because of the preseason that we have,” O’Connor said.

“Here it’s a different climate, so whether it’s down to the heat, the humidity, whether it’s down to players maybe not hydrating enough on an individual basis. That’s something that has been implemented throughout the year. The players have had hydration tests. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why that is, but again, it’s trying to be aware of it and address it for next year.”

The club will move into a permanent training facility in July, though it’ll be at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, rather than in Lake Nona as was previously announced.

Orlando City SC will also benefit from the return of Orlando City B, a USL League One (formerly USL D3) side. The lower-division team will focus on developing young players and is intended to be professional extension of the club’s partnership with the Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy, which houses Orlando City SC’s development academy.

“If I’m a postman and I have to deliver post around Orlando, I’m going to need a car that gets me there and it needs to be reliable and it needs to give me expected behavior,” O’Connor said. “The principle is the same. If I have players and I want to win games, I need an expected behavior that I believe will allow us to win games.”

O’Connor said he’s already identified players he’s going after this offseason.

“We’ve got some players we feel will definitely be able to help us,” he said. “I have a very clear vision of what it is that I’m looking for.”

When asked whether Orlando City will make the playoffs next season, O’Connor said, “I certainly hope so.”

He added, “As a coach, this is my first experience of… never mind the playoffs, you know we’re used to going to the Eastern Conference final [in the USL] and winning the championship.”

For O’Connor, this season has been a learning experience. He had high expectations for this season. He had goals and ideas and things he wanted to accomplish.

After some self-reflection, he believes he’ll be ready to lead Orlando City next season.

“If I could start next year tomorrow, I would,” O’Connor said.

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