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From Dublin to Orlando: James O’Connor’s Path to Becoming Orlando City’s Head Coach

Louisville City head coach James O’Connor has been named Orlando City’s newest head coach. We take a look at O’Connor’s career and how he wound up here.

Orlando City v Columbus Crew Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Yesterday afternoon, Orlando City announced the replacement for Jason Kreis. After former Portland Timbers boss Caleb Porter reportedly turned down the Lions, the club went with a familiar face in James O’Connor. With the new coach taking over next week against Los Angeles FC, let’s look at O’Connor’s path to becoming Orlando City’s third head coach.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, O’Connor moved to England as a teenager to join Stoke City FC’s academy. In 1998, he made his professional debut for the Potters in the country’s second division. It was during his time at Stoke City that he would meet a man who would help him migrate west to the United States.

After five years at Stoke City, O’Connor’s first professional transfer was to West Bromwich Albion during the summer of 2003. Less than two years later he would move to Burnley, and eventually end up at Sheffield Wednesday, where he joined future Orlando City teammate Luke Boden.

In March 2000, Phil Rawlins became a board member of Stoke City FC. This appointment allowed Rawlins to form a relationship with the central midfielder, helping to influence his decision to move stateside. O’Connor has stated that his decision to move to Orlando City in 2012 was influenced by wanting to go somewhere that he knew the people. In addition to knowing Rawlins from his time at Stoke City, he also stated that he understood head coach Adrian Heath’s philosophy of the game.

After making more than 500 senior appearances for English clubs, O’Connor moved stateside in 2012, joining Orlando City of USL Pro. A strong and experienced presence in the midfield, O’Connor helped the Lions to the 2012 Commissioners Cup and the 2013 USL Pro championship. His playing career in Orlando lasted a little over two years, with the midfielder accumulating 51 appearances.

Orlando City was announced as the 21st team in MLS on Nov. 19, 2013, and constructed a roster for the 2014 USL season looking forward to the inaugural MLS roster a year later. The club brought in a few players on MLS contracts that would be making the transition with the team, with one of those players being central midfielder Darwin Cerén. This left O’Connor on the outside of the starting lineup, and he made just one league and one cup appearance during the early part of the 2014 season.

In addition to coaching, Heath has become a mentor for future coaches. With former players O’Connor and Anthony Pulis coaching professionally, he’s starting to build his coaching tree. Part of that mentoring was assigning the role of player-coach during the club’s USL existence. The first player with the dual role was Ian Fuller, who remains Heath’s assistant at Minnesota United. O’Connor took that dual role for the 2013 USL season.

Having been announced as the newest MLS team, Orlando City sold its USL rights to fellow Lions minority owner Wayne Estopinal, who placed the team in Louisville, KY. On the same day that Louisville City FC was announced, O’Connor was named its first head coach.

O’Connor’s success in Louisville was immediate and long-lasting. Louisville City finished with the second most points in the USL in the 2015, 2016, and 2017 season, finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2017. During the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, Louisville made it to the conference finals before falling to the number one overall seed and eventual league champions. They finally got over that hump last year when they defeated Swope Park Rangers to win their first USL championship. Louisville City’s strong play has continued in 2018 with O’Connor’s squad currently in third but with games in hand on FC Cincinnati and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. He also has LCFC in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals — LCFC is the only lower division team still in the competition.

When Orlando City fired Jason Kreis two weeks ago, reports stated that the club would be looking domestically for his replacement. The names that immediately came to mind were former Timbers head coach Caleb Porter and O’Connor. After Porter reportedly turned down the club’s offer, O’Connor was announced as the team’s next head coach.

O’Connor’s appointment recalls the glory days for Orlando City when, under Heath, the club was winning trophies in the third division. After getting his coaching start at the club in 2013, O’Connor has gone on to gain his UEFA Pro License and will have his USSF Pro License. His success at Louisville City has made him widely considered the best coach in American soccer’s lower leagues. Moving back to Orlando, O’Connor’s tenure in American soccer is coming full circle and he’ll have the opportunity to prove his abilities in the country’s top tier.