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Potential Orlando City Replacements for James O’Connor

Here are 10 potential names to become the Lions’ fourth head coach in MLS.

Tijuana v Herediano - Friendly Match Photo by Gonzalo Gonzalez/Jam Media/Getty Images

Orlando City Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi made it clear on Monday that the club will no longer tolerate mediocrity. He’s not interested in continuity for the sake of continuity so he pulled the trigger and made the first significant change of the 2020 season, five months before it even kicks off. James O’Connor is out and the search has already begun for the fourth Orlando City head coach in six seasons.

There’s absolutely no insider knowledge when it comes to this list. It’s simply an exercise in curiosity but here’s my take on the various options the team could explore (although I think you’ll agree some are a lot more likely than others).

MLS Experience

If the team wants to play relatively safe, it could look to bring in someone familiar with the nuances of a pretty unique league. MLS has an abnormal amount of travel, not to mention the mechanics of the salary cap, expansion and college drafts, and allocation money, so looking towards someone who has managed in MLS before seems sensible.

Óscar Pareja

The Colombian is currently managing in Liga MX with Club Tijuana, where he has been since November, although with Xolos getting through managers even faster than Orlando, how long he remains there is unknown. Previously Pareja worked under Orlando City’s Luiz Muzzi at FC Dallas for four seasons and did the double, winning the Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup in 2016. Before that he also had two seasons in charge of the Colorado Rapids, leading them to playoffs in 2013. In short, he’s no stranger to what Orlando craves.

Orlando City’s record points total in five seasons is a paltry 44, set back in 2015. In seven seasons in MLS, Pareja only went below that total once when the Rapids only picked up 37 points in his debut season as a head coach. It was also the only season any of his teams have had a negative goal difference, something the Lions have not been able to escape. The fact he knows MLS, knows Muzzi and knows how to win makes him one of the early front runners, not to mention his ability to bring youngsters through the club’s pipeline — something else Muzzi has been eager to correct in Central Florida.

Mike Petke

Having only been relieved of his duties by Real Salt Lake in August, Petke has all of the relevant recent experience that would allow him to join Orlando City smoothly and already be up to speed. Prior to that he bolstered his reputation by leading the New York Red Bulls to a Supporters’ Shield title. Shades of an MLS 2.0-type hire, Petke could feel uncomfortably too similar to the Jason Kreis appointment, but let’s not forget that before Orlando (and NYCFC) Kreis’ stock was incredibly high in MLS circles and he has since landed back on his feet with the U.S. Under-23s. Meanwhile, Petke currently holds the 12th-best points-per-game average in MLS history at 1.526, a pace that would result in a 52-point season. His track record speaks for itself and although it maybe doesn’t seem like a ceiling play, he does have a pretty high floor in theory. His coaching has predominantly drilled a specific identity and style into his team, regardless of opposition, something O’Connor struggled to impose in his 15 months in charge.

However, the departure of Pekte from RSL was under the cloud of some reportedly unsavory language from the New Yorker, who isn’t shy when it came to calling out match officials, something that would likely be a running theme should he land in Orlando given PRO’s relationship with anything purple. His enthusiastic and passionate demeanor on the sideline supposedly matches his hard-nosed management style that could either drill some much-needed tough love into the Lions or do the opposite and quickly alienate a locker room that has a sketchy history when it comes to backing coaches.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Liga Mayor de Fútbol

Given the Brazilian influence at boardroom level, many have speculated that Orlando City will eventually end up turning its search towards Latin America. This season saw the arrival of Guillermo Barros Schelotto from Boca Juniors in Argentina and Matías Almeyda from Mexico’s Guadalajara, with both arriving as reigning Champions League winners from their respective confederations. With the Lions now looking to go in a different direction, it seems plausible that Orlando City could follow suit and finally look at someone with either Liga MX or CONMEBOL experience.

Diego Alonso

Alonso is Almeyda’s successor as CONCACAF Champions League winner. In doing so, he also became the first manager to win the tournament with two different teams, after having also done so with Pachuca in 2017. With additional managerial experience in his native Uruguay and Paraguay, Monterrey only fired Alonso at the end of September following a loss to fierce rivals Tigres, but he likely won’t have been short of offers already considering his reputation. FourFourTwo even named him in the site’s top 50 managers in the world 2017.

A striker in his playing days for the likes of Valencia, Atlético Madrid, Nacional, and Peñarol, Alonso is a good motivator and even admitted about himself, “I was an average player but thanks to my attitude, I made it to the biggest leagues. We are like this in Uruguay.” With a workmanlike determination to win, Alonso’s desire has translated into a goals-per-game average of 1.6 during his eight-year managerial career, which makes him one one of the more attack-minded managers on the list — something Muzzi has explicitly suggested he’s looking for. Favoring a 4-2-3-1 formation, Alonso could also be an attractive prospect given that Orlando has already built a squad that lends itself well to that setup.

Pedro Caixinha

One of the most strongly linked coaches in the aftermath of Monday’s firing, the rumor is nothing more than simple speculation at this point. However, Caixinha himself has claimed both Liga MX and MLS teams have contacted him. The Portuguese was sacked by Cruz Azul, where he lifted the Copa MX, at the beginning of September but his most successful spell, in terms of winning percentage at least, came in Scotland with Rangers, a role that ironically ended in turmoil and was considered an absolute disaster. He was the shortest tenured manager in club history as well as famously overseeing Rangers’ most embarrassing defeat in history as the Glasgow team was eliminated from the Europa League by Luxembourg minnows Progres Niederkorn. He reportedly picked the team a week in advance and his training style was also criticized, dragging 20-minute sessions out with two-hour breaks and showing film of his former Qatari team — something Rangers felt wouldn’t translate in Scottish football.

With experience also in Qatar and his native Portugal (where he previously worked alongside a young Nani), as well as assistant positions in Saudi Arabia, Romania, and Greece, Caixinha clearly isn’t shy in exploring opportunities in new leagues. But would Orlando be ready to take a flier on someone whose biggest criticisms have been that he’s a loose cannon, a poor communicator, and, perhaps most worryingly, that he has an inability to adapt to a squad, instead preferring to make the squad his own — something a team with constant and immense squad turnover has repeatedly fallen foul of.

MLS: Leagues Cup-Cruz Azul at LA Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Transatlantic Transfer

European soccer is seen as the pinnacle of the sport. If you want to be considered one of the best, that’s where you have to be. As well as players, MLS has seen an increasing number of coaches now take jobs on the other side of the Atlantic, including Patrick Vieira and Jesse Marsch. But with the steadily growing reputation of MLS and comparative low stakes and media scrutiny, Orlando City may be seen the perfect opportunity for a recently sacked European to rebuild their reputation.

Javi Gracia

The Spaniard took Watford — a club that is now on its 11th managerial appointment in just eight years — all the way to the FA Cup final, as well as a safe midtable finish last season before facing the ax, thanks to a poor start this season. Many analysts thought Gracia would be the guy that finally stuck at Vicarage Road after the club extended his original 18-month contract all the way through to 2023. But he went winless in eight and the club with one of the itchiest trigger fingers did the deed.

Having spent his entire playing career in Spain, Gracia took his first managerial role in 2007 with lower league Pontevedra and swiftly won the Segunda División B title. He has also managed two Greek teams and Rubin Kazan in Russia. A very detail-oriented and tactically astute coach, Gracia gained a reputation as a giant killer with Malaga, changing formations between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 depending on the opposition’s strength and regularly picking up points against Barcelona and Real Madrid. He still is highly sought after in Spain and reportedly turned down an offer from La Liga’s Espanyol earlier this week. Whether or not he could be tempted to move Stateside or the flurry of European interest means he’d rather wait for a big club remains to be seen.

Marcel Keizer

Mostly recently the manager of Sporting CP, Dutchman Keizer has already worked with Nani who Orlando will no doubt be aiming to build around in 2020. Having picked up 2.14 points per game — albeit with one of the strongest teams in Portugal — Keizer also has the highest career goals-per-game average of anyone on the list at an impressive 1.82, most frequently using an attacking 4-3-3, the signature of Dutch total football. Having clinched the league and cup double with Sporting despite a politically chaotic period for the club off the pitch, Keizer agreed to mutually part ways with the club at the start of September after just four games of the season, winning two and drawing another.

A player for nearly a decade at Cambuur, he later returned to the Dutch club first as director of football and later as manager to little success. A more successful spell at the esteemed Ajax academy led to the Eredivisie giants promoting Keizer to the senior position in 2017 but he lasted just 24 games before taking a role in Abu Dhabi with Al-Jazira.

Primeira Liga”Sporting Portugal v FC Porto”

World Class Giants

MLS has gone from Designated Players to Designated Coaches, with more teams putting greater emphasis on coaching to gain a significant advantage. Unlike player personnel, coaching staff is not salary capped and it has seen the arrival of the likes of Tata Martino and Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man, Domènec Torrent, both of whom are #1 and #2 in points-per-game in MLS history. Surely the next step for Orlando is to defy expectations and appoint a headline-grabbing monolith of the sport.

Jose Mourinho

The single-biggest free agent right now, The Special One’s European reputation has been somewhat tarnished and he may be looking for a change of scenery (and continent) since being out of work following a tumultuous spell at Manchester United. The Premier League side made him the second-highest paid manager in the world so it’s highly unlikely Mou will have his head turned by whatever Flavio could offer him, but it would be interesting to see the level of impact he would have on MLS coaching — likely akin to the watershed moment David Beckham’s arrival was on the player side of things.

The Portuguese not only won with powerhouse teams but rose to fame when he guided underdogs Porto all the way to a Champions League title, proving he doesn’t necessarily need the best players, which would be music to Orlando’s ears. However, he has also earned a reputation for very boring, park-the-bus style football, and with Muzzi desiring an attacking mind, he probably wouldn’t fit the profile even if he was within budget.

Luiz Felipe Scolari

The MLS press office was in overdrive in June 2018 when Taylor Twellman reported Brazilian legend Scolari was top of Orlando’s wish list to replace Jason Kreis with even talk of Kaká coming in as assistant. How serious that interest was remains unknown but I’m going to guess at “not in the slightest bit serious” since the team eventually ended up plucking O’Connor from the USL. Even more decorated than Mourinho, Big Phil has taken charge of no fewer than 22 clubs and nations in a career that spans four decades and had the ultimate honor of lifting the World Cup with Brazil in 2002.

Now 70 years old and a month removed from a third spell with Palmeiras, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Orlando could finally go for an experienced and hugely respected head to help turn the fortunes of the club around and Scolari has never shied away from accepting what some may consider slightly left of mainstream offers from teams in smaller leagues, having managed in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and China, especially given his frosty relationship with the media. He’s enigmatic, demands respect, and is highly pragmatic. His early teams in Brazil were defensively solid and ruthless in attack. His two Copa Libertadores-winning teams relied on pressing fullbacks, counterattacking fast with a target striker complemented by a quick second striker. He was even adopted the 3-5-2 over a decade before its most recent revival during his World Cup win. Whatever players Orlando goes into 2020 with, Scolari will likely find a way to get the best out of them.

Godoy Cruz v Palmeiras - Copa CONMEBOL Libertadores 2019 Photo by Alexis Lloret/Getty Images

Team America

Two of the most recent national team managers are currently out of work. Not just anybody gets entrusted with a national team job and with such a position comes an inherent responsibility to know U.S. domestic soccer like the back of your hand. Who better to take charge of an MLS team then than someone who has had to immerse themselves in the nation’s soccer culture?

Jurgen Klinsmann

Despite a calamitous end to his USMNT career that all but destroyed the German’s reputation in the States, Klinsmann is surprisingly currently being linked with the Tottenham Hotspur job should Mauricio Pochettino leave. But honestly I don’t know how Orlando could steer this away from being anything short of a PR disaster months out from the start of the season.

Having previously been in charge of the German national team and Bayern Munich, Klinsmann had his first taste of MLS when Toronto FC hired him as a technical consultant in 2010 and he proceeded to choose Aron Winter as his head coach, a man with the second lowest winning percentage of the 91 MLS coaches to have been in charge of 30 or more games. Taking charge of the USMNT in 2011, Klinsmann oversaw the team’s first win at the the Azteca, won the Gold Cup in 2013, and then reached the World Cup quarterfinals after negotiating the group of death in 2014, despite controversially leaving out Landon Donovan.

However, the 2018 World Cup cycle went from bad to worse as the U.S. first lost to Jamaica and Panama at the 2015 Gold Cup before he was fired with the team sitting precariously at the bottom of the qualifying group. Despite never dropping below a 50% career winning percentage, there’s not really any sensible argument other than name recognition to chase Klinsmann as many consider his tenure with the USMNT as nothing short of tactically farcical. Not to mention his latest comments regarding Concacaf holding back U.S. Soccer would also suggest the Orlando gig might not be to his taste.

Jill Ellis

Corinne Diacre’s three-year spell at Clermont in France’s Ligue 2 is the highest level we’ve seen a woman manage a men’s team, while current Scotland Women’s National Team manager Shelley Kerr and German Imke Wübbenhorst both also had stints in lower leagues, breaking ground in their respective countries. Could Ellis become the first female coach in MLS? Fresh off the back of successfully defending the USWNT’s World Cup title, it’s tough to see Ellis entertaining the idea of taking on another coaching role this soon but it could prove interesting if not unpredictable.

With an Orlando team that has seemingly lacked motivation and an edge in the crunch moments, logically the experience Ellis had in managing the strong personalities of the USWNT locker room, surviving a player revolt of sorts in 2017, and still getting her team over the line twice in intense tournament conditions proves she has everything Orlando City is looking for in terms of winning mentality. That being said, the winningest coach in U.S. history has spent the last 20 years within U.S. soccer and previously only had coaching experience in college, meaning her resume lacks time with a professional club. With nearly half her life spent in the system, could she transition well to day-to-day player management, a completely different situation from international soccer?

Soccer: She Believes Cup Womens Soccer -England at USA Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s evidently a veritable smorgasbord of directions in which Orlando City could potentially go, especially given it wants to change things up. I already gave my thoughts on why it was right to let O’Connor go on Monday that you can read here but what I failed to caveat is that if the team just simply goes and gets another O’Connor then he might as well have stayed. Bob Dylan told me the times they are a-changin’. Let’s hope so.

Comment below with A. who your dream appointment would be and B. who you actually expect the team to get.