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Orlando City coach James O’Connor: We’re going to work until we get it right

(From left) Orlando City head coach James O'Connor walks to the training pitch with goalkeeper coach Thabane Sutu and assistant coach Daniel Byrd. (Jordan Culver/Orlando Sentinel).

James O’Connor arrived at Sylvan Lake Park at 6 a.m. for his first day as Orlando City’s head coach and didn’t leave until 16 hours later.

For O’Connor, it was about setting an example. He wants every player and coach working with Orlando City to know he’s not going to ask anything of them that he isn’t willing to do himself.

So when he demands a high work ethic, no one can brush him off. Constant work is what it’s going to take for the Lions, losers of nine consecutive MLS matches, to turn their season around, he said.

Spending more than half the day at Sylvan Lake Park is part of that.

“We’re going to work until we get it right,” O’Connor said. “Whatever that means, that what it means.”

“If I demand a high work ethic from my players, then I have to embody that. I can’t say to players, ‘I want you to work really hard,’ and then I’m checking out of here at lunchtime and hitting the beach. It doesn’t work.

“I need to be consistent. If I’m going to be making that demand of someone else, I need to be living that demand. Then it’s fair. Then people go, ‘OK, that works.’”

O’Connor will coach his first home match as Orlando City’s head coach at 8 p.m. Saturday against Toronto FC. It won’t be his first time with Orlando City’s home supporters cheering him on, as he was with the club as a player in its USL days, but it’ll be his first time in front of The Wall at Orlando City Stadium.

That’s something he’s looking forward to experiencing.

“Just generally – and I know it’s really difficult, because everyone is so frustrated – just to try to support the players as much as you can,” O’Connor said. “That’s what we all need. We really need to get behind Orlando City as a club. I can understand the frustration without question. I think that the important thing for us is to try to get some confidence and belief back into the players.”

Of course, part of the reason O’Connor spends his days and some of his nights analyzing film and demanding excellence from his player is because he wants to give Orlando City’s supporters something to cheer for.

That starts with getting the most out of his players.

Player relationships

It’s no secret O’Connor is an intense straight-to-the-point person. Players have said he brings a “black-and-white” mentality to training.

Still, O’Connor said he’s aware he represents change and there’s a process to ensure players are comfortable with him.

For that, O’Connor turns to the Kubler-Ross Change Curve model. Basically, it’s a process broken down into stages – shock/denial, anger/fear, acceptance, commitment – and managing those stages key to success.

“Being aware of the process and the emotional aspect and understanding that when you do implement a little bit of change, if it’s too much, too soon, it becomes a problem,” O’Connor said. “There has to be a balance. It’s something that we’re very intentional about speaking of because that’s what’s going to happen.”

To that end, O’Connor said he’s also looking to give players a fair look, even though the secondary transfer window opened on Tuesday. He said the club has had some “preliminary discussions” regarding new players, both nothing beyond that as of Thursday.

He said he and the coaches are focused on the upcoming schedule – the Lions face Toronto on Saturday, then play the Philadelphia Union in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday, then face the Columbus Crew next Saturday.

“I want to be fair to people, as well,” O’Connor said. “I’ve had it myself when a new coach comes in and he doesn’t really look at players. He says he will and then just sort of pushes everyone to the side. We want to be intentional about being very fair. Give people a chance.

“There’s a couple of areas that I’ve looked at and I’ve thought, ‘OK, maybe we may need a little bit of strengthening there.’ So, there’s been some initial conversations. That’s very early stage as we want to really focus on this Saturday against Toronto.”

Familiar coaches

Two men O’Connor relied on while at Louisville City FC are helping him cultivate relationships with players.

Assistant coach Daniel Byrd and goalkeeper coach Thabane Sutu on July 6 were announced as hired by Orlando City from Louisville City, though Byrd was with O’Connor for the latter’s first day on July 2.

O’Connor said the two coaches help balance his intensity when interacting with players. Plus, having his lieutenants from his former club ensures a smooth transition.

“There’s a togetherness,” O’Connor said. “There’s an understanding of expectations. Candidly, if I come in and we’ve got a coaching staff and I’m saying, ‘OK, we’re going to work these hours,’ they’re like, ‘I don’t really want to do this.’

“There’s resistance within the staff, never mind the players. For me, it’s trying to make sure there’s an understanding of expectations. What the players can expect from us? What we can expect from them?”

Sutu and Byrd both have no issues with O’Connor’s expectations.

“He likes to win,” Sutu said of O’Connor. “Let me just put it that way.”

Sutu said O’Connor’s intensity means he must step up his own.

“You have to, otherwise you’re gone,” Sutu said with a smile. “It’s really that simple. You have to match it. I don’t have a problem [with it]. I know I share the same work ethic as he does.”

Byrd, who was a youth coach with Orlando City while O’Connor was a player, said O’Connor’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude doesn’t change.

“James is a really down-to-earth guy,” he said. “James is a family man, but when it comes to football, he switches right on and it gets really intense, real quick. He’s a really good man and he’s someone who takes his football very seriously.”

Sharp focus

O’Connor is aware people can get frustrated with his intensity. At this point, the 38-year-old coach isn’t going to change. 

He knows his intentions are good. That’s what counts. 

“I was very competitive as a kid,” O’Connor said. “I think I’ve been told a lot of times in my life that I can’t do things. It’s like everything, you have two choices. You either believe them and think, ‘Oh I can’t do it,’ or you don’t accept it and prove them wrong. 

“In my experience, to prove them wrong, you have to work exceptionally hard. You need to be very focused and very intentional about your actions. That process is something that we’re trying to be here.” 

Does that level of focus ever get tiring? 

“Probably for other people,” O’Connor said. “Not for me.”

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