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Poor run of form gradually eroded morale among Orlando City players

Orlando City midfielder Will Johnson (4) dribbles as New England Revolution midfielder Scott Caldwell (6) defends during the second half at Gillette Stadium. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City midfielder Will Johnson isn’t sure when this season went off the rails from a morale standpoint.

The Lions got off to a rough start but bounced back and won six consecutive matches. They followed that with nine consecutive losses – coach Jason Kreis was fired after the sixth loss of that streak – and haven’t been able to right the ship under new coach James O’Connor.

Johnson said there wasn’t one point in the season where morale turned around. It was a gradual process.

“It just kind of happens with results,” the 31-year-old veteran midfielder said before training on Tuesday. “The longer that you get into a bad streak, the harder it is to get out of it. Early on in the streak, when Jason was still around, we continued to get frustrated with those mistakes and instead of finding a way out of it, we made things worse.

“Guys started trying too much and when you want something so bad to end and the harder you try, the more you kind of paralyze yourself in terms of getting results and getting out of it. You need to be more relaxed and we got tense. We got nervous. We got anxious. Those are all adjectives that ultimately lead to more and more bad results.”

Orlando City has three matches left in the season, two of them at home. The Lions play the Seattle Sounders at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Orlando City Stadium.

With the continued run of bad results – Orlando City has just one win in its last 22 league matches – Johnson said it’s become tough to reach the younger players on the team.  

“I think guys have been receptive to it,” Johnson said. “But I think implementing some of the things that were asked throughout the season, obviously with some of the change, we got to a point where morale and confidence just got so low that it didn’t necessarily matter what you were telling guys. They need some space to reflect and calm down. Obviously, that’s what the offseason’s for.

“It just seems no matter what guys you put on the field and what shape, it’s just at a point now where it’s really, really tough for guys to go and do what they’re capable of doing because there’s so much pressure, there’s so much negativity, there’s so many bad things being written about us as a group right now, a lot of those young guys just don’t really know how to manage that. They need some time and space. Some new, fresh people in and around the club to make that aspect of things better.”

Midseason signing Shane O’Neill said there was still confidence among players that Orlando City could make the playoffs when he first arrived in June. O’Neill was brought on after Kreis was fired. 

“I would say we definitely still believed that we could make a push for the playoffs,” O’Neill said about when he first arrived at Orlando City near the end of June. “I still the morale is OK with the group. Obviously, it’s disappointing, what has happened. There’s been a few games where I think we can look to that the season kind of turned for us.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to kind of gather that momentum back. You know once you’re quite a ways outside of that red line, it becomes a really tough challenge.”

O’Connor said there was optimism when he first arrived at the start of July, but there was a lack of confidence. That lack of confidence hasn’t gotten better during his time with Orlando City. The Lions have gone 1-10-3 in league play under O’Connor. 

“I think it’s really difficult to speak about mentality – as we found out – to come in midseason, to then say, ‘Look, this is the way we want to operate,'” O’Connor said. “I think what we found is there’s certain aspects that some players can’t do what we’re asking, so then we need to try to adapt and we need to try to manage that.

O’Connor again stressed the importance of preseason training.

“You need to make sure you have a good foundation in place,” he said. “That the fitness level is there and then you can spring from that. We have a process, we have a way of operating that we’re pretty aligned, that we believe will bring success. From the player mentality standpoint, that’s something that we try to speak about and try to influence as much as we can.”

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