SANFORD, Fla. – For Orlando City coach James O’Connor, there’s a method behind who is in the starting XI on match day.
When he’s managing a player’s minutes – which lately has been the case for star designated players Nani and Dom Dwyer – it’s not as simple as, “Player X gets Y number of minutes until he’s Z-level of healthy.”
“You have to look at load,” O’Connor told Pro Soccer USA. “We’re fortunate so much as we have the GPS monitoring system, so we can see have far people have worked, the load, the distance they’ve covered, the intensity they’ve covered at, what their norms are.
“Equally, I think, for us, it’s just looking at the individual player. If they’re dealing with specific stiffness. If they’ve had to miss a couple of days because of maybe how they’re feeling. There’s so many variables that need to be accounted for.”
The Lions (2-3-2, 8 points) host the Vancouver Whitecaps (1-4-2, 5 points) at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
Orlando City is coming off a 2-1 road loss to Real Salt Lake during which Nani and Dwyer didn’t start. They came in the 56th minute and instantly impacted the match. O’Connor insisted there’s a strategy to what he’s trying to do when it comes two of his key players early in the season. He also referenced Nani’s extended season because he transferred to Orlando City from Portuguese side Sporting CP, and Dwyer’s preseason quad injury.
“When we’re looking at the opponent, we’re looking at them first as a team, then we’re looking at units, but then, specifically, we’re looking at individuals,” O’Connor said. “I’m thinking, ‘So what are his trends? OK, he tends to tire in the 60-65th minute.’ OK, well, the last thing that guy wants is somebody like Nani or Chris Mueller or somebody like that coming onto the field because then it kills him psychologically.
“He goes, ‘Oh, my god. How am I going to get through the next 25, 30 minutes?’ Whereas, at the start of the game, he feels fresh and he’s like, ‘OK Nani. OK Mueller. Let’s go.’ The other way, it hurts them. Again, there’s a plan behind it.”
Against Real Salt Lake, things didn’t work out. RSL scored its second goal while Nani and Dwyer were waiting to come onto the pitch and the Lions couldn’t find an equalizer late.
Two weeks ago, against the Colorado Rapids, when the Lions needed a lift after giving up a lead in the second half, things worked out fine. Orlando City won 4-3 and forward Mueller impacted the contest as a substitute, scoring a match-tying goal a minute after he checked in.
“You’re always looking to try and expose the opposition with the best weapons you have,” O’Connor said. “It becomes a game of chess.”
Plus, there’s the question of why specific players need their minutes managed compared to their teammates.
“I think, for us, with Dom in particular, the last couple of years he’s obviously missed the preseason and then you look at the injuries,” O’Connor said. “So it’s trying to make sure that we don’t get that. There’s different body types. For me, when I was playing, I very rarely got – if at all – injured. Muscularly, I’m very stiff.
“So, you have some players that are very flexible, some aren’t. Some that are very explosive, some that aren’t. You almost need to be a sports scientist and have an understanding of psychology, sports science. There’s so many different factors that come into it.”
Still, O’Connor said he understands the fan perspective. Supporters want to see star players.
“We’re privileged because we get to see the players every day,” O’Connor said. “We see training. We see who’s stiff. We’re given reports on how far they’ve run. We’re given reports of the sleep patterns. For us, there’s so much information that the supporters and even the media don’t get.
“For us, we try to be transparent, as much as we possibly can without coming and saying … we can’t say on a Friday, ‘Hey! Just a heads up, everyone: Nani’s not going to play.’ The opposition are going, ‘Oh, thank you very much. That’s great.’ You’re dealing with so much information.”
O’Connor said he has individual conversations with players in the days before a match, but those talks aren’t his main method of judging when someone is ready to play.
“The issue is when you sit with a player, a player is going to tell you he’s fine,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “Everybody wants to play. How are you feeling? ‘Great, Coach!’ How’d you sleep? ‘Fabulous. I had the best night’s sleep ever!’ OK. So, it’s like, you need to be a little bit more creative in how you’re trying to gain your information.”