Orlando City returned to its roots and is trusting a former champion to lead the Lions to their first Major League Soccer playoff bid.
The club announced it hired James O’Connor to take over as Orlando City’s new head coach.
O’Connor was a player-coach during the Lions’ days competing in the United Soccer League, helping the club win the 2013 championship before eventually landing the job leading USL side Louisville City.
Orlando City interim coach Bobby Murphy will coach the Lions through the club’s match against Atlanta United on Saturday and O’Connor will join the club ahead of its match against LAFC in Los Angeles next week.
“This has been a difficult decision for myself and my family and in such a short space of time. While I will be forever grateful for my time here with Louisville City FC, the opportunity to coach in Major League Soccer is simply one I cannot pass up,” O’Connor said in a statement.
“To be able to build a club from the ground up and to experience the successes we’ve had in just over three years is something I am very proud of. I would like to thank [Louisville president and chairman] John Neace, the players, the supporters, the entire Louisville City ownership group, my agent Gary Mellor and the incredible support I have received here.”
Orlando City General Manager Niki Budalic said O’Connor was the club’s top target going into the coaching search.
“He has proven himself a consistent winner as both a player and coach at the USL level, and now is extremely eager to prove himself in MLS,” Budalic said in a statement. “James is very aware of the winning culture we have built in Orlando and what it will take to uphold that tradition in both the short- and long-term. We couldn’t be more excited for him to get started.”
O’Connor will bring assistant coach Daniel Byrd with him from Louisville City.
“While we are obviously disappointed to see coach O’Connor go, we are confident in the short and long-term success of Louisville City FC in our city,” Neace said.
The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio first reported the news of a potential deal between O’Connor and Orlando City.
O’Connor, who led Louisville to the 2017 USL Championship, is originally from Ireland and was a player for the Lions during their USL days. Louisville was the Lions’ original USL affiliate before the club launched Orlando City B and there are many staff ties between the two franchises.
O’Connor played alongside current Saint Louis FC coach Anthony Pulis at Orlando City from 2012 until 2014.
Pulis said he was delighted for O’Connor.
“It’s refreshing to see a young coach get a chance at the next level,” Pulis said in a phone interview.
“You probably wouldn’t meet a more disciplined professional on and off the field. I know he’s exactly the same as a coach. Enjoyable to play alongside. We became really close friends, to this day, somebody I talk to a lot on a personal level and and professional level. He’s a big student of the game. He wants to learn. I’m just delighted he’s got the opportunity.
“He’s the right type of character to galvanize the whole club and the right guy to get them back to where they belong.”
O’Connor’s career as a player includes stops at Stoke City, as well as West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday
Under O’Connor, third-place Louisville City’s defense has given up just 13 goals through 14 matches. Last season, Louisville scored 58 goals and had a plus-27 goal differential.
O’Connor’s had a contract with Louisville City that went through 2020.
The 38-year-old inherits a squad club CEO Alex Leitão expects to be in the playoffs this season. During a press conference before Orlando City’s 2-0 home loss to the Montreal Impact, Leitão said Orlando City is not in rebuilding mode after Jason Kreis’ firing.
Orlando City brought in a host of new players with the expectation of making the playoffs this season. Kreis was fired after the club lost six matches in a row.
Leitão said whoever the new coach is would have the ability to make “one or two” moves, but Orlnado City’s roster is set.
The Lions’ front office has shown its willingness to fire coaches who don’t get the job done quickly. Adrian Heath was fired midway into his second MLS season with the club and replaced by Kreis, who on June 15 was fired after 64 league games – not enough to constitute two full MLS campaigns.
Orlando City also in the middle of a U.S. Open Cup run. The Lions face the Philadelphia Union on 7 p.m. on July 18 at Talen Energy Stadium. Louisville City is still in the Open Cup and plays the Chicago Fire on July 18.