Orlando City isn’t joking about its locker room culture this season.
During preseason training, players and coach Jason Kreis frequently spoke about how quickly the group of mostly-new players came together.
When the club was mired in an 0-2-1 start that included back-to-back loses, no one pressed the panic button. Goalkeeper Joe Bendik said the early-season struggles helped the group bond even more.
“This team … I think it started in preseason,” he said. “We all were really happy to get to know each other and start to get things going. The season started and we had a little bit of adversity and just the character in the group, I think, came out. And that’s why everybody enjoys being with each other.”
Now, with the club riding a five-match win streak, spirits are high. Players joke with each other during training sessions. Friday morning, star striker Dom Dwyer donned a protective facemask – not because he was injured, but because centerback Amro Tarek has a broken nose and needs to wear one, too.
Right back Will Johnson said the club’s veterans spent time getting the new members of the club acclimated to the culture they’re trying to build. That included dinners and hangouts away from the training facility.
He added Uri Rosell and Yoshi Yotún have been instrumental in helping the Spanish-speaking players get on the same page.
“I think you’ve got a bunch of guys who believe in what we’re talking about in terms of culture and getting this right,” Johnson said. “We started those culture leadership meetings in November of last year, so we’re going on quite a few months now that this plan has been in play.
“It’s fun. We’re enjoying it. I think you see a different energy. Guys are excited to walk into this building in the mornings, to see each other, to be around each other, to go on road trips. We’ve started to build a foundation and see some results from that stuff.”
Still, it’s early. Orlando City is 5-2-1 through eight games this season. There are 26 games left in the regular season – and around this time last season is when the Lions’ collapse began after a hot start.
“At the end of the day, it’s May. We’ve got a long way to go,” Kreis said. “We’re not happy. We’re not satisfied. We continue to strive to make improvements and reach our potential, which we don’t think we’re anywhere near yet.”
Of course, Kreis has seen a club that’s this tight-knit. He coached Real Salt Lake to a MLS Cup title in 2009 and watched that club come together over years of scouting and finding the right people – not just players, but coaches and other personnel.
“In my opinion, this process is happening, much, much faster than that one did,” Kreis said. “That’s probably because of just the insanely large amount of work that all the staff did in the offseason to find the right people.”
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, one of the club’s offseason acquisitions, said the group is still coming together as the season goes on.
“It’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting there,” he said. “I think the relationships continue to build on the field and off the field, as well. We enjoy being around each other. I think we enjoy coming to work. I think we enjoy being on the training field together and that’s always an important part of being a good team.”
The Lions face Real Salt Lake at 5 p.m. on Sunday in a match that’ll be broadcast locally on TV27 and streamed live on YouTube TV. Orlando City is going for its first six-match win streak in its MLS history.
Winning helps, but Johnson said the group’s camaraderie is about more than results.
“In general, in professional sports, when things are good, you’re usually winning,” Johnson said. “When things are bad, you’re usually losing. After the game against New York City, you’ve got to sometimes take a step back and not always look at the results.
“But, at the same time, this is the business we’re in. Winning, getting results. Doesn’t matter always what it looks like, how we get it done, but of course, winning helps validate what we are trying to establish here.”
— Amro Tarek (@AmroAbdelAziz) April 30, 2018