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Orlando City and the Illusion of Progress

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2019 saw improvement for Orlando City but it was nowhere close enough to saving James O’Connor his job.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Edit: I wrote this yesterday before James O’Connor was sacked so apologies if some of it still reads as speculation instead of fact. I’ve tried to update it since but, in short, O’Connor was never going to survive and rightly so.

It’s finally over. As the 2019 Orlando City season finally comes to a close, I’ll hit you with one more dose of reality. Anyone who has followed my articles will know I’m a big stats guy. I don’t like reactionary opinions based in little or no fact but the difficulty can still remain when what people infer from stats differs. After all, it’s not black or white.

Depending on your outlook in life, this year’s numbers either make for terrible reading or, as those scrambling for any shred of optimism have repeatedly told themselves, “the team has improved and must be trending upwards.” It’s technically true: for the first time in history, Orlando City has finished with a higher points total than the previous year. It also improved on both the goals scored and goals conceded totals simultaneously for the first time and got the furthest it ever has in the U.S. Open Cup following its run to the semifinals.

Yet, for all these improvements, they largely register as nothing more than default wins when in truth the only reason the team has seemingly improved is because it would have been incredibly difficult for things to get worse following a historically poor 2018 season. The progress is an illusion based purely on comparing it to subpar standards. In reality, the team has in fact stood still compared to the rest of MLS. A net gain of nine total points on last year has taken Orlando from 11th in the Eastern Conference and 22nd in the Supporters’ Shield standings last year all the way up to *checks notes* 11th in the Eastern Conference and 22nd in the Supporters’ Shield standings.

For further context, this season’s points total of 37 is the team’s second lowest in history behind only 2018. The goal total is only one more than last year and the third fewest by season. The only notable difference has been that the team took the tremendous leap of conceding the fewest goals it has in a single season, namely 52, which is still frankly a pretty poor number to have as a record best (12 teams managed to concede 50 or fewer goals just this season alone). Orlando City’s biggest boast in the 2019 season is essentially that it lost lower scoring games by narrower margins. Even then, the rhetoric starts to fall apart thanks to a Decision Day defeat that saw the Chicago Fire come to Orlando and hand the Lions a record home defeat with the Lions only losing by three goals in Central Florida for the third time and the first time it had conceded five goals at home. On a day with absolutely nothing but pride, hope and self-respect at stake, James O’Connor’s Orlando City crumbled in embarrassing fashion.

So yes, the team has improved but that’s like being thankful the diner that gave you food poisoning has at least stopped spitting in your food. Of course it’s an improvement but you’re still getting sick. Improving and failing to reach an acceptable standard are not mutually exclusive. If Orlando City had any ambition, it needed to stop measuring its targets against itself and recalibrate its standards to fall in line with the rest of the league. This is one of the strongest squads Orlando City has had — unfortunately MLS has moved a lot faster than Orlando City has even in the short five seasons since the team joined in 2015, leaving the Lions playing a game of checkers they’ve only just learnt the rules to while everyone else is playing chess.

Fortunately the team now has somebody with a sense of just where the standards need to be and who is accountable when they are not met in Luiz Muzzi. The former FC Dallas Director of Soccer has already done some smart recruiting since joining from the Texas outfit last December and the team will be able to jettison some of the high-value contracts attached to players that have struggled to contribute ahead of the 2020 season. But 2019 was James O’Connor’s audition to really show what he’s got to a man that did not hire him but whose success is intrinsically linked to that of O’Connor’s. What O’Connor turned out to have was the second worst season in team history, a standard that would all but seal his fate in any other league and for Muzzi, that was more than enough to not want to gamble his own job on. Orlando City’s security as an MLS team, regardless of how poor it is, meant there was previously little in the way of consequence under a regime that was content with being an “also ran” type of contender. We can always go again next year, right? Not any more.

Einstein once said that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” I’ve spoke at length earlier in the season on both the importance of getting value from numerous Designated Players and hiring the right head coach and this end of season run has done nothing to sway my thinking.

The team went into the final eight games of the season above the playoff line. Finally, a playoff race in which the team controls it own destiny! Even the team’s favorable end of season strength of schedule lent itself perfectly to a postseason push.

How did the Lions respond? By taking four points out of a possible 24 — a points total that last season’s historically bad team managed in its final six games, two games fewer and without the prospect of playoff contention to help motivate them. At what point do we stop convincing ourselves that this team is any better off this year, a season that saw an additional one extra playoff spot up for grabs no less, than last year? The team has had 18 months to assess O’Connor and hasn’t liked what it has seen. If Orlando City is to get 2020 right, it needed to go into the season with a coach it believes in, not hesitantly stick with O’Connor before inevitably sacking him in the middle of the season as happened with both Adrian Heath and Jason Kreis before trying to muddle through another half season and rebuilding again during winter.

I was called a pessimist when I gave my preseason predictions. I said the team would finish in 9th with a 9–13–12 record and 39 points, the lowest of anybody. Turns out I was a realist, or maybe even a borderline optimist, after the team finished 11th with a 9–15–10 record and 37 points. I said it then and I’ll say it again: “Orlando City is a small fish compared to the MLS elite and will be scrapping for the last handful of playoff spots.” The team has consistently shown that it is only interested in little more than trying to fight it out for that final playoff spot. There’s no real shame in having realistic and attainable ambitions yet despite setting such a lowly target, Orlando City still came up significantly short.

As a wise Jedi Master once said: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Orlando City did not. There are no prizes for trying and the simple fact is, the arbitrary notion ‘progress’ isn’t good enough in a results-based business. Orlando City has finally chosen to acknowledge that and now the pressing issue with O’Connor gone is finding the right replacement that won’t simply improve on a bad season by having a less-bad season; they need a good season.