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Analyzing James O’Connor’s Team Selections

O’Connor went with a questionable starting lineup in Saturday’s road loss and it didn’t work out.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Real Salt Lake Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Orlando City traveled to face Real Salt Lake. Head Coach James O’Connor made four changes from the previous week’s home win against the Colorado Rapids, with the Irishman’s generous approach to rotation once again raising a few eyebrows.

O’Connor has so far made an average of three changes per game in 2019 with about half of those coming on the defensive line. He has never named an unchanged side during his 24-game spell with Orlando and has named the same back line only once this season, retaining the opening day personnel group of Danilo Acosta, Kamal Miller, Alex De John, Shane O’Neill and Kyle Smith for the second week trip to Chicago. He has tried five different combinations in the following five games since.

There’s plenty of speculation as to what O’Connor’s constant tinkering means. Firstly, it means that he still doesn’t know his best starting lineup. With a 16% win record, less than half the rate of any other Orlando City permanent manager in MLS, O’Connor could still be trying to find a winning formula. But that doesn’t explain why he’s keeping his biggest assets out of the side. Notable absences this time included the Lions’ two leading play makers and current joint top scorers, Nani and Dom Dwyer. Both had their minutes carefully managed in the opening seven matches and the same goes for City’s third DP — Young Designated Player, Josué Colmán.

Dwyer has only started three times despite playing in every game. Nani had started the last five after making his strong debut from the bench in the season opener against New York City FC, before returning to the bench at Rio Tinto Stadium. Colmán, on the other hand, has only been given 41 minutes this season with a single-game high of 15 minutes in the defeat to Montreal. Since July, the Paraguayan youth international has only played 486 minutes in MLS.

Another notable absence from the squad has been Cristian Higuita. Orlando’s leader in appearances, Higuita has made only one substitute appearance this season and has been left out of the match day squad more than he’s been included. Similar to Colmán, Higuita has been pushed to the fringes with his playing time reduced to a 30% rate in the O’Connor era with just 644 minutes. The midfielder has managed to go the full 90 minutes since O’Connor arrived only once.

However, not everyone has had to buy a ticket to the rotation raffle. For example, 33-year-old Sacha Kljestan is the only outfield player to start every game this year and has played 1,771 minutes for O’Connor. Another two stalwarts are defender Shane O’Neill, who arrived in Orlando one game into O’Connor’s reign and has clocked 1,642 minutes since, and Canadian international Will Johnson, who returned to the starting lineup against RSL following a three-game absence from a concussion to take his total to 1,238 minutes.

On the defensive side, absentees included Alex De John and Carlos Ascues, who were both injured and unavailable, while center back Lamine Sané reportedly didn’t travel. Sané has started two games in 2019 and made a further 24-minute substitute appearance after recovering from a calf injury sustained in preseason.

Fielding five in the back — or three in the back with two wingbacks pushed forward, depending on how you look at it — meant newcomer Kyle Smith, who reunited with O’Connor from Louisville City in the off-season, was the only defensive option available on the bench with O’Neill and rookie Kyle Miller both returning to the starting 11. Things seem stretched with injuries stacking up, especially with a system that requires five defenders — three center backs and two wingbacks — and the team is still struggling to stem the flow of goals.

The Lions are on pace to concede 63 goals this year. The match against Real Salt Lake was the fourth time in 2019 that the team has trailed by two and the fourth time it’s conceded in the opening 20 minutes. During last year’s record-breaking season, the team fielded 13 different center back partnerships and 26 total back line iterations. Any semblance of defensive cohesion is frankly impossible with such inconsistencies and the sooner a settled, first-choice back line appears and stays healthy the better.

O’Connor also feels that he gains an advantage by being unpredictable and keeping his opponents guessing how his teams will line up. That is what led to the formation switch against Montreal as the team changed to a 4-3-3, which ended in a 3–1 defeat.

Is the advantage of catching your opponents off guard bigger than the disadvantage of the incoherence and unfamiliarity brought to your own ranks by continually changing systems that your side has minimal, if any, real-game experience of? The answer for O’Connor was clearly no as the Lions quickly returned to a 3-5-2 formation, but have continued to rotate personnel within it.

João Moutinho and Ruan dislodged Acosta and Smith for the starting wingback jobs and have performed well since. But in such demanding roles, it is unusual to see them get four and five consecutive starts respectively compared to other positions.

I’d expect to see that change soon just like the front two which has seen five different starting partnerships in the opening seven games: Chris Mueller and Tesho Akindele (twice), Nani and Akindele, Nani and Dwyer (twice), Nani and Santiago Patiño, and Akindele and Dwyer.

O’Connor had previously lamented his lack of forward options, only really having Dwyer and Stefano Pinho to turn to at forward last year. With a busy off-season of recruiting, aided by newly appointed Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi, O’Connor now has twice as many out-and-out strikers at his disposal with the arrival of Akindele from FC Dallas, first-round draft pick Patiño, and Homegrown Player Benji Michel, all of whom have seen the field at least once.

It is this apparent strength in depth that has allowed O’Connor the freedom to switch things up depending on the opponent. And it has arguably worked to some effect: Orlando has scored in every game so far this year, something it failed to do in seven games under O’Connor last year.

The lineup changes could be a sign that O’Connor is planning long term, trying to keep his key players fresh and Real Salt Lake makes for a tough trip at altitude. Orlando has also performed poorly beyond April in the past. The team has four wins in 36 games across the last two seasons between the months of May and August. MLS is a marathon, not a sprint, and the early reduced minutes to key players now will perhaps pay dividends later in the schedule.

Last week, O’Connor was praised for his use of impact substitutes, particularly Mueller, but he appeared to cave to public pressure by handing the second-year winger a start this time around. Mueller failed to have the same impact, struggling to link well up top with Akindele and had his explosive potential contained.

The bigger frustration is the feeling that games like Saturday’s have been within reach to at least get a point from, if not the win. With the aforementioned defensive issues, it’s a balancing act between changing the game from the bench and trying to stay in the game in the first place to able to make those substitutions with a realistic chance of getting something.

Against Colorado, Mueller entered with the Lions trailing with 10 minutes left but was able to grab the equalizer to set up the win. Against RSL, Dwyer and Nani entered in the 56th minute when trailing 2-0. The team’s performance improved, but Nani could only score off of a free kick to reduce the deficit. O’Connor wanted to make that double change with the score still 1-0 — both Nani and Dwyer were waiting to check into the game when the second goal was scored — but the deficit grew before the change could take place.

At any rate, it seems counterproductive to leave such players on the bench in the context of this one game. Whether it pays off later in the season remains to be seen.