Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
Orlando City is starting over again. Again. After a season and a half, the club announced today in a 117-word press release that it has “agreed to part ways” with Head Coach James O’Connor, effective immediately. Orlando will be hiring its fourth head coach in five MLS seasons.
“On behalf of Orlando City we want to thank James for all of his efforts during his coaching tenure at Orlando,” Orlando City SC Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi said in a club press release. “We wish James the best of luck in the next phase of his coaching career.”
O’Connor, a former player during the club’s USL days and a two-time USL champion coach, was announced as the Lions’ third skipper on June 29 of 2018 — just two weeks after the midseason firing of Jason Kreis. In his time as Orlando City’s head coach, O’Connor posted a record of 11-27-13 in 51 games. Of that, 17 came in the awful 2018 season, when O’Connor was just 2-12-3. The Lions finished in 11th in the Eastern Conference in both of O’Connor’s seasons, although the club was foundering well before his arrival in 2018. The team showed some improvement in 2019, going 9-15-10, setting its best MLS mark in terms of goals conceded — one year after setting a league record for the most goals allowed — and made its deepest run to date in the U.S. Open Cup, reaching the semifinals before losing a close one against Atlanta United.
O’Connor was certainly not perfect in his time in Orlando — failing to put together back-to-back wins at any point in his tenure, which is something even Cincinnati did twice this year — but he was also one of the younger coaches in the league, especially in terms of experience. It would not be surprising to see the 40-year-old find success in the league somewhere else in the future (it wouldn’t be the first time a former coach went on to success elsewhere). His 2018 squad was dreadful and the 2019 version was only halfway through the rebuild while the team cycles through some bad contracts and only had Muzzi in place since mid-December.
Whether this was simply a decision based on (perhaps unrealistic) 2019 expectations, a late season collapse by the team while in playoff contention, the fact that Muzzi inherited a coach he had no hand in hiring, or a combination of these, the club will now start over.
What it Means for Orlando City
The positive here is that the club didn’t drag this out. It would have been far worse to leave O’Connor at the helm for the first dozen games of 2020 and then make the move if the team got off to a bad start.
Another positive is that the team is still undergoing a roster churn, so getting a new coach in (if done quickly) will mean that whoever is selected can have a say in the types of players he wants to fit his system. This is better than when Heath was fired and the roster needed an overhaul to fit what Kreis wanted to do. I’m not sure that overhaul ever really was finished because Kreis’ system and tactics were quite different than Heath’s run-and-gun style and, to be frank, the team wasn’t constructed correctly in the first place when City joined MLS, with too much faith put on guys to make the jump from the USL to Major League Soccer, too many misses on defense, and too much invested in Young Designated Players who didn’t pan out.
On the other hand, the OCSC front office has once again shown its impatience, something I’ve written about in the past. No one has gotten more than a year and a half to fully put their imprint on the team. Continuity and the ability to stick to a plan has been a weakness of ownership and the front office ever since Phil Rawlins sought out majority ownership from Flávio Augusto da Silva so that the club could make the jump to MLS. The Heath and O’Connor plans at least showed promise. One can only wonder how much time the next coach will be given.
With the exception of a few isolated matches, Orlando was more difficult to beat in 2019 than ever before. That doesn’t mean the team lost fewer matches. It just meant the mentality was trending in the right direction, which is the first step. Without changing the culture, no losing team can turn things around.
We wrote just last week about the cases for and against keeping O’Connor, so there’s no need to rehash all of them here in their entirety. There were legit arguments both ways. Now it’s time to move on.
By making this move now, the club has a chance to make a statement. Will City add a “Designated Coach” like LAFC and New England have done? Will it go with an MLS retread? Will it try to lure someone from another club who might be starting to wear out his welcome? Will it go young again?
Whatever Orlando City does, it must not drag out this decision. It must act quickly, decisively, and make a strong statement, because fans are growing weary of the hire-grow impatient-fire-repeat cycle that the Lions have offered up so far. This hire must be a no-brainer type. There can’t be any room for doubt.
O’Connor spoke a lot in his final postgame press conference about the defensive improvement in the club and changing the mentality to be difficult to beat. He seemed eager to fix the offensive side of the club and add some depth this off-season to take the next step. But he didn’t last a full day into that off-season.
So now we wait to see what’s next.