BRADENTON, Fla. — As Orlando City’s Wednesday training session at IMG Academy in Bradenton started to wind down, the players who participating in the final scrimmage of the day were joined by someone who could be described as a mid-summer signing.
Coach James O’Connor, hired at the end of June, joined the players on the pitch for the final exercise of the day. The 38-year-old Irishman was basically a holding midfielder for both sides, joining whichever group was on the attack and dishing out passes. He occasionally stepped up as a defender, too.
Orlando City’s first bye week with O’Connor as the club’s head coach was out of the ordinary in a few ways. But O’Connor stepping into training – and challenging players enough to work up a sweat on a hot day – was something he and the players appreciated.
“I think I’ve got some work to do after that,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “I think the blisters are starting to kick in. I’m just glad that defibrillator is by the side of the pitch. It was great. It was nice to have a kick around with the lads at the end.”
O’Connor and the rest of the squad traveled to IMG Academy on Tuesday and will return to Orlando on Friday.
“For us, it gives us an opportunity to get the guys together, spend a few days where we can manage the training load,” O’Connor said. “Push them a little bit harder. I think that’s something that we want to try to utilize over the few days is to push a little bit harder. Try to train toward fatigue a little bit more. Try to manage that, we need to be careful with that.”
Orlando City (7-15-2, 23 points) faces Atlanta United next week. With 10 matches left, and clubs like D.C. United charging up the Eastern Conference table, the Lions are running out of time to make a run at a playoff spot.
Orlando City’s biggest weakness this season has been its defense. The Lions lead the league in goals conceded with 57.
“There is time to fix it,” Orlando City midfielder Will Johnson said. “We’re not mathematically out of it. We know that there’s a chance to fix it. We’ve got back-to-back home games, but it starts against Atlanta.
“We need a good reaction. We need a good defensive performance and we need to get back to getting shutouts and making sure this club, defensively, is proud of our record. We can’t continue to leak goals and lead the league in goals against. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
O’Connor said the week at IMG is something the club needed. The entire team made the trip to Bradenton, including centerback Lamine Sané and midfielder Sacha Kljesten, who have been held out of recent matches due to injuries.
“It’s the first week that we’ve had with James with the weekend off,” Johnson said. “We get a chance now to just focus on tactics, training, working hard, doing the right things.
“We’re going to get some very, very good defenders back so we’re not going to have to rely so much on depth players. That’s huge. You add all those things together and I think we’ve got a real chance now, 10 games, to go out and try to win each game as the come, one at a time, three points a time.”
O’Connor also thanked club CEO Alex Leitão and owner Flávio Augusto da Silva for sending the club to Bradenton and added he’s in frequent communication with the pair and that both have been receptive to his needs as Orlando City’s coach.
Striker Dom Dwyer said the club had to quickly put a rough 3-2 loss to D.C. United out of its mind to move on to its week at IMG.
“We’re working hard this week,” Dwyer said. “We’ll enjoy our weekend off and then we’ll be having Atlanta when we get home.”
When it comes to raising team morale, having the head coach join a scrimmage at the end of practice helps.
“He’s still got a lot of energy and passion both on and off the field,” Johnson said with a smile. “He’s been a breath of fresh air.”