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James O’Connor Deserves This Opportunity

The former USL Lion has earned his shot at leading the organization whether you believe it or not.

Image courtesy of Orlando City SC

Orlando City has finally got its man and it’s one that people, — not including me at all — may be questioning. Orlando typically has always been about big splashes in favor of shrewd under-the-radar moves: Tom Sermanni signing on as the Pride coach, Jason Kreis was possibly the biggest MLS name out there when he was hired, and this current coaching search had everyone from Luis Scolari to Caleb Porter, to even some talking about French manager Didier Deschamps.

Instead, Orlando City went with the “underdog” candidate of sorts. Former USL Orlando City midfielder and Louisville FC (USL) manager James O’Connor will jump into the role amidst a trying time for the club. Whether O’Connor was first, third, or 10th on the list should be of no consequence to anyone at this point. The reported talk that Porter refused the job shouldn't be your focus either. Whether by luck or by planning, City choosing O’Connor for the role is the right decision.

The 38-year-old Irishman has been earning his keep as one of the best managers in the United Soccer League over the past three and a half seasons. After having the club in the top two of the Eastern Conference in each season, he capped it off by winning the USL championship in 2017. He finishes with a record of 60-23-23 proving that he brought a consistent winning culture to a club that only began in 2015.

Some may have wanted a bigger name, thinking that a young coach with no MLS experience isn't the right path for where City currently stands. What if I told you that you could have rising star Greg Berhalter (now with the Columbus Crew) at the helm? You would undoubtedly jump at the chance, right? He’s being talked about as the best manager in the league, possibly looking at the U.S. Men’s National Team job, all at the age of 44.

Few know his coaching path however. Berhalter had one season as an assistant with the LA Galaxy before moving to Swedish club, Hammarby IF, where he was sacked in his second season. The Crew then hired him at the age of 40 with no MLS head coaching experience at all. If Berhalter is sent back to being an MLS assistant then are we even talking about him in such a positive light? Or is he just a Marc Dos Santos buried on an LAFC bench that we often bring up in coaching rumor articles?

I think in sports too often the coaching carousel is abused. The same managers are hired over and over again, only to have little impact overall. Not enough are young candidates given the chance to succeed or they are held back too long when they could have excelled much earlier like a Berhalter has done. O’Connor at this point has more coaching experience at his age than Berhalter had when given his first assistant role. He has playing experience in England, and — arguably most importantly — his style of play fits what Orlando City needs right now.

First and foremost, O’Connor’s preferred formation with Louisville was the 4-2-3-1. This means he’s not going to come in and try to remold the players to his own formation like Kreis did with the 4-4-2 diamond, or Bobby Murphy is trying to do with the 3-4-3. He’s going to let the players continue in the roles they currently have, I’m sure with minor tweaks, and that's important for a club that is struggling. You can't be changing too much and expecting positive results.

O’Connor’s teams are known for their open, fast, and attacking play. This is something the Lions have lacked throughout the course of the season, often looking lethargic or lacking urgency. In their 2017 championship run, Louisville ranked second in goals (65), first in shots by a wide margin (558), and second in total passes (16,593). If there’s one thing he’s going to want to do it’s going to get out and score goals.

The attacking numbers shine but what’s just as impressive is that his defense didn’t lack. This wasn’t a one-way team that just outscored everyone. That same season LCFC led the league in clean sheets as well (15) and was third in fewest goals allowed (32).

That’s encouraging coming from the likes of Adrian Heath who clearly had his mind on one side of the field. Although Jason Kreis was better than Heath in that respect, I often felt like he was a more defensive minded coach the way City looked like it was playing. O’Connor’s statistics appear as if he’s going to have a much more complete focus on the game.

When I say complete focus, I’m not only talking about the style of play. O’Connor has shown his ability to develop players while at Louisville with many of his players finding MLS homes. Players like Chandler Hoffman and Mark-Anthony Kaye have gone from Louisville to signing MLS contracts. Kaye can now be seen marshaling the midfield of a star-studded LAFC midfield.

The Lions have plenty of youth that needs developing like Chris Meuller, Josué Colmán, Cristian Higuita and others that will benefit from O’Connor’s ability. Not to mention, O’Connor should hopefully be able to bridge the gap with Orlando City B (when it returns) and the academy. Having a young, fresh eye on the soccer pyramid, one that will be more 360 in view vs. just the first team, should help the organization grow over time. Knowing O’Connor’s heavy experience in the USL, he’s not going to ignore this aspect of the job (if City allows his input).

The question will be how long of a leash O’Connor will be given. He comes into a situation where playoffs are the immediate goal, hopefully a deep U.S. Open Cup run, and the pressure is coming from all angles from the CEO to the fans. That’s not the most ideal situation for a young manager in his first MLS stint, but the organization wouldn't have brought him into this scenario if it didn’t believe in him.

It’s my hope the leash he’s given is a long one, as a young coach should be given. Whether that will be the case I have no clue. Unfortunately, I have to assume the leash will not be very long knowing the history of City coaches only lasting for a season and a half has been the track record.

If given some time however, I believe O’Connor will be exactly what this club needs to move forward. Many people screamed how Kreis was an MLS 1.0 manager and that new blood was needed if the club was going to be competing at the top. For many, you got what what you asked for. It may not be the name that shines on a marquee, but it’ll be a manager that should bring results if given the time and tools to do so.