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Orlando City players struggle to stay united and upbeat amid midseason change, losses

Orlando City SC starting lineup huddles up prior to the game against the Houston Dynamo during the first half at Orlando City Stadium. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Orlando City’s nosedive to the bottom of the Eastern Conference table has led to questions from all sides.  

Has the team quit? Does the group have the character required to be successful? What’s the plan for next year?

It’s a massive difference from the vibes surrounding the club earlier in the year.

During preseason training and while the club was riding a six-match win streak, players and coaches frequently spoke about the sense of unity in the locker room. Former coach Jason Kreis compared it to his championship Real Salt Lake squad.

Of course, everything is easier during a win streak.

Midfielder Will Johnson said the team’s camaraderie hasn’t withstood the test of one win in 20 matches as well as it should have. Injuries and the midseason coaching change from Kreis to James O’Connor have contributed to that, he said.

Johnson said the team has taken “punishment and criticism” while trying to execute new ideas, which has hurt confidence. He added O’Connor needs time to be able to fully evaluate the season and to implement his system. 

“I think a lot of that has come with the change,” Johnson said. “Change in professional sports is never easy. Guys then pull back a little bit and go into their shell, if you will. I think injuries have contributed to that in a big, big way. Not having big pieces of the team with us at all times of the year has hurt.

“It feels like every time we get a strong 11 on the field, there’s a FIFA break or an international break where we lose guys for two or three weeks and then all of the sudden you’re back to the depth part. There’s a bunch of contributing factors.

“I still believe that we have a good group of guys here who all mean well, but when there’s this much change throughout the course of the season, it’s difficult to grind through those challenges. It hasn’t been bad, but I do think I could have been better.”

Veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan said it’s tough to keep the mentality as high as possible when things have gone as poorly as they have for the Lions. Frustrations have boiled over at times during matches for Orlando City. Players have been seen yelling at each other on the pitch and there were heated exchanges after a devasting 3-2 loss to D.C. United in August.

“During a season like this, that kind of stuff gets tested and we probably haven’t done a good enough job of sticking together and trying to draw the group closer together in the locker room,” Kljestan said. “I think it’s completely normal when you’ve had a season like we’ve had, where things don’t go our way, where everybody maybe isn’t the perfect teammate. It’s not at the highest level it should be, that’s for sure.”

Kljestan, who in the past has said trying to instill a winning mentality in Orlando City has been a frustrating aspect of the season, said finger-pointing starts to happen when the mentality begins to drop.

“We also maybe don’t have enough guys who have looked in the mirror and thought about how well this season has gone on a personal level,” Kljestan said. “I don’t think, for any of us, it’s been at the level that we expect it to be. A lot of different factors, but certainly hasn’t been the best.”

Kljestan added the team is still trying to work on a sense of camaraderie, but there are just five matches left in the season. Plus, no one on the squad really knows who is going to be back next season – Kljestan said that’s something out of the hands of the players.

Orlando City (7-18-4, 25 points) isn’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, but odds of the Lions climbing into sixth place are nearly astronomical. The team plays FC Dallas (15-6-9, 54 points) on the road on Saturday.

“I always do my best to rally the group,” Kljestan said. “To try to get the guys to work hard every day in training. There are certain young guys that I’ve talked to that – even if they’re not back here next season – to not stop training at the highest level possible now. Now it’s about training for yourself and getting yourself ready for next season, whether that’s here or somewhere else.

“Every day is a chance to improve and if you’re wasting days here, then you shouldn’t even come in. If you’re not coming in to train at the best level that you possibly can, you’re just wasting your own time. That part kind of pisses me off.”

O’Connor said the offseason and preseason training will be important for establishing a culture next season. He said some players have adjusted better than others to both the culture he’s trying to build and to the performance standards he’s set.

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into preseason,” O’Connor said. “You’re looking at games. You’re looking at who’s available, who’s not. For us, we want to go to have a training camp. Where’s the training camp? The length of time of training camp. There’s a lot that we’re going through to make sure we get the preseason we all want next year.”

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