Orlando City SC forward Dom Dwyer (14) celebrates with midfielder Tony Rocha (8) as he scores a goal against the Toronto FC during the second half at Orlando City Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
ORLANDO, Fla. — A wise man once said that there comes a time to stop looking out the window and start looking in the mirror.
Maybe new no-nonsense and nose-to-the-grindstone coach James O’Connor has finally forced Orlando City — its players and its management — to do just that.
Stop looking out the window and dreaming of what you think you should be and look in the mirror and realize what you’ve been: One of the most disappointing franchises in MLS.
Not only did the Lions beat Toronto FC 2-1 to end one of the longest losing streaks in MLS history on Saturday night, O’Connor boldly sent a directive in his home debut by benching starting goal-keeper Joe Bendik and not even putting high-priced midfielder Justin Meram on the 18-man active roster.
The result was that the Lions scored first in an MLS match for the first time in nearly three months and almost pulled off only its second shutout of the season — if not for a meaningless stoppage-time goal by Toronto in the closing seconds of the match.
The message O’Connor sent with the benchings on Saturday night was, in essence, telling the players to stop deluding themselves into thinking the nine-match losing streak was some fluky happenstance of bad breaks, bad officiating and bad coaching.
O’Connor seems to be putting the onus where it belongs — directly on the players themselves. Since he took over following the firing of Jason Kreis, he has brought every player in his office and told them bluntly and honestly where they stand.
“I’m not going to try to deceive,” O’Connor says. “I’m just going to [tell] everybody straight. I’m a genuine person. I like to be very honest. There’s no beating around the bush.”
Said star striker Dom Dwyer on the fierce competition for jobs during training sessions: “It’s all up for grabs now. You’ve got a new coach coming in and he’s going to play the guys who are playing the best and performing when in training.”
If you had to point to one major reason why Kreis was fired, it was his annoying habit of telling everyone — even as the losing streak grew — just how good his team was playing and just how badly they were getting ripped off by MLS officials. O’Connor, although his tenure is only two games old, seems to be more interested in holding the players accountable than the officials.
Maybe O’Connor’s frank, forthrightness will also rub off on Orlando City’s entire organization. I believe the club and its management still has this flawed perception of itself as one of the model organizations in the league. They still see themselves as the hot, young, charismatic franchise of four years ago; a cocky expansion club that believed it would come in and immediately start dominating MLS.
Back then, the team’s motto was “Defying Expectations.” Unfortunately, they have lived up to this mantra — albeit in a frustrating, contradictory way. Every year, Orlando City builds expectations and every year they defy them by getting worse instead of better
There is no other way to describe Orlando’s four seasons in MLS except downright discouraging. In Year 1, they 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. Last year, they finished 10th with 39 points.
Even more troubling is Orlando City has been lapped by other expansion teams who truly are defying expectations in the way you’re supposed to defy them.
Atlanta FC made the playoffs last year in its inaugural year and now is considered a championship favorite with the best record in the league. Right behind Atlanta in the Eastern Conference is NYCFC, which came into the league the same year as Orlando and has already made the playoffs twice. Los Angeles FC, which thumped Orlando City 4-1 last week, is in its inaugural season and currently sits second in the Western Conference.
Maybe O’Connor, Orlando’s third coach in four seasons, can change the direction of this floundering franchise. Ending the third-longest losing streak in the 22-year history of MLS on Saturday night was certainly a good start.
The hope is O’Connor can somehow get through to these players. Orlando City’s embattled management team is counting on a new coach and a new voice suddenly lighting a match and the team catching fire and playing to its potential.
Perhaps O’Connor, with his tell-it-like-it-is, lay-it-on-the-line candidness, is finally convincing these players to stop making excuses and blaming others.
Look in the mirror, Orlando City.
Everything else is just window dressing.