Orlando City general manager Niki Budalic acknowledged Monday that new coach James O’Connor has been signed to a 2 ½-year contract.
But what Budalic didn’t say and should have said is this: “Mark my words, we’re going to be patient this time. We’re going to give Coach O’Connor the full 2 ½ years to execute his plan.”
If only Orlando City had shown a modicum of patience in the past, maybe they wouldn’t be in the predicament they were in Monday when they introduced O’Connor as the new coach of a club in a state of free fall and in the midst of franchise-record eight-match losing streak.
The Lions jettisoned beloved former coach Adrian Heath midway through his second MLS season two years ago with Orlando City still in the thick of the playoff race. Then they fired respected coach Jason Kreis, a former MLS champion, two weeks ago with his team still above the playoff line.
Both coaches were livid with Orlando City’s management for pulling the plug early and weren’t bashful at all about expressing it to the public.
“We had a three-year plan and I never got an opportunity to finish the plan,” Heath once told me. “That’s what was disappointing for me. I get that people move on [and coaches get fired]; I just felt I deserved a better and more dignified exit.”
Kreis took to Twitter over the weekend and said it was a “crushing blow” and he was “bitterly disappointed” he was not given the opportunity to finish out the year with a roster that was completely gutted and rebuilt during the offseason.
“Winning does not come overnight,” Kreis wrote. “It takes patience, time, hard work, a plan, true support and trust.”
Translation: Orlando City’s management team of Budalik and CEO Alex Leitão don’t have the patience or trust in their coaches to stick to a plan. Those aren’t just my words; those are the words of both Heath and Kreis.
When I asked O’Connor Monday if he is concerned about Orlando City’s lack of patience with its previous two head coaches, he replied: “The best thing for me is to focus on the things I can influence and impact. I focus on what I can control, and I can control the quality of training and the level of preparation. If I can get the short-term right then the long-term will take care of itself.”
Except Orlando City has never, ever looked long-term. And that’s part of the problem. From the day the Lions joined MLS, they acted like they were Manchester United or the Brazilian national team. They talked of making the playoffs and winning the MLS Cup without an actual process or plan on how to get there.
While there is a part of this win-now-or-your-fired mentality that fans love, there has to be some patience and perseverance. Otherwise, if you keep switching coaches, changing plans and starting over, you find yourself in a perpetual state of purgatory.
There was a school of thought after Kreis was fired that Orlando City would mimic the two clubs they most envy — Atlanta United FC and New York City FC — and go big-game hunting to try and land a marquee international coach. Obviously, that didn’t happen. In fact, Orlando City went in the opposite direction and hired O’Connor, who once played for Orlando City during the club’s minor league glory days in USL and was the highly successful coach of Louisville City FC at the USL level.
Budalic insists that O’Connor was the club’s first choice, but acknowledged that the team did interview several other candidates, including former Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter. It is certainly a topic of conversation among soccer insiders as to whether Orlando City’s reputation for firing coaches mid-season is starting to hurt the quality of their pool of coaching candidates.
“We discussed with all of the candidates and especially with James that our expectation, ambition and goal of this club is to win,” Budalic said.
He then switched gears and insisted, “We are not bringing him (O’Connor) in here as a short-term fix. This is not a situation where we feel he needs to prove himself in six months. This is a move where we feel he can turn around this group in the short-term but also is a good fit for the club long-term.”
Without a doubt, Orlando City’s long-term vision needs to start now. Let’s face it, there’s only so many times Budalic and Leitão can blame the coach for the team’s troubles. Sooner or later, management itself has to start taking some responsibility, too.
When Adrian Heath was asked about O’Connor, his old Orlando City player, becoming Orlando City’s new head coach, he just smiled and said, “He’s a good guy and a good coach. If they give him time, I’m sure he’ll do all right.”
If they give him time.