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Firing of OCB Coach a Harsh Reminder to James O’Connor and Marc Skinner

O’Connor and Skinner may be on the hot seat as Orlando teams struggle.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Orlando City SC Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City once again showed its lack of patience, parting ways with Orlando City B Head Coach Fernando De Argila Irurita on Thursday, just four months into the team’s debut season in USL League One. Roberto Sibaja, the Orlando City U-19 head coach, has taken over in an interim capacity until the end of the year.

With one coach already out and the organization’s two other teams languishing near the bottom of their respective leagues, it’s hard to ignore the pressured environment and perpetual coaching carousel the club continues to create. The organization over-promises on projects only to quickly pull the plug on them and start over. This is the circumstance both Orlando City’s James O’Connor and the Orlando Pride’s Marc Skinner find themselves in at the moment.

Fernando Jose De Argila Irurita

Of course you can choose to attribute Irurita’s firing solely to Orlando City B’s on-field performance — the team is in terrible form, having taken one point in the coach’s final eight games, and is rooted to the bottom of the table. However, it is reductive to suggest that OCB’s success is just measured in league wins and not long-term player development targets. The team was re-established following hiatus in 2018, becoming a third-division side with the aim of acting as a stepping stone from the team’s development academy to the senior MLS team.

As a result, the brand new squad has the second-youngest average age in the league behind FC Dallas affiliate North Texas SC and is nearly three years younger than the league average. Irurita was brought in by Orlando City B General Manager Mike Potempa because of his wealth of coaching experience with the likes of FC Barcelona and his successful spell with Potempa at the Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy (SIMA). However, Irurita seemed to put a lot of stock in his more senior OCB players, especially those on loan from Brazil, limiting opportunities for Orlando’s own academy kids perhaps in a bid to better compete in what is a professional league.

Despite this, Irurita still only managed a measly 15.8% win percentage in his 19 league games in charge, the lowest compared to James O’Connor (22.5%) and Marc Skinner (21.4%). He had the second-worst loss rate at 63.2%, with the worst currently belonging to Orlando Pride’s Skinner (64.3%) in his even shorter spell in charge, while O’Connor has done markedly better, “only” losing 57.5% — although that is far from a figure to be proud of.

Scoring was a real issue during Irurita’s OCB tenure, only managing an average of 0.84 goals per game compared to Skinner’s 1.14 and O’Connor’s 1.23. Defensively, however, OCB under Irurita had marginally been the strongest, conceding 1.74 goals per game compared to O’Connor’s 1.75 and Skinner’s 2.21. Meanwhile, Irurita’s 0.68 points per game average was also the lowest compared to Skinner’s 0.79 and O’Connor’s 0.88.

While Irurita’s marching orders aren’t surprising, it’s not exactly outside the box to suggest that neither O’Connor’s nor Skinner’s numbers in Orlando are much better or more competitive. So does Irurita’s early sacking also mean Orlando’s other coaches are on the hot seat or does the club finally plan to see a project beyond a matter of months?

James O’Connor

No Orlando City head coach has been able to complete two seasons from start to finish. Adrian Heath completed the team’s inaugural season in 2015 but was let go halfway through 2016. Jason Kreis, Orlando City’s longest-tenured head coach, only managed his one complete season in 2017, book-ending his stay by two half-seasons after taking control in July 2016 and departing in June 2018.

The firings were seen as a desperate grab to rescue playoff aspirations, something the team has moved progressively further away from year after year: finishing in seventh, eighth, 10th, and 11th place in the conference, respectively. This was after club CEO Alex Leitão emphasized in June 2018 — just before O’Connor was appointed — that he expected whoever was coming in to get what he deemed a playoff-caliber roster to the postseason and that the team was not in a rebuild mode. Of course, we all know that it ended with O’Connor taking nine points from a possible 51, leaving the Lions second from the bottom behind the San Jose Earthquakes in the league standings and with an unwanted new league record for goals conceded.

Contrary to Leitão’s assertions, O’Connor survived and the team that supposedly wasn’t in need of rebuilding made no less than 13 senior acquisitions and let 15 players leave in the off-season. While there’s no doubt this is now the strongest Orlando City squad ever seen, with the club reaching its first ever U.S. Open Cup semifinal in the process, Saturday’s resounding defeat against the New England Revolution puts the team seven points adrift of the final playoff spot and on pace to finish ninth.

While the team has trended upwards in 2019, it must be unsettling for the Irishman to have seen the previous impatience within the front office and know that it might not be enough. Even isolating his 2019 numbers, O’Connor has a respectable 30.43% win percentage but that still puts him behind both Heath and Kreis. Will O’Connor become the first to survive two full seasons by seeing out the 2020 season? It’s tough to even know if he’ll last past 2019 without the postseason appearance Leitão emphasizes as the benchmark.

Not only does precedent suggest he won’t, but so does the current hierarchy shift. Orlando City is in the midst of a restructuring that should’ve taken place five years ago. The team may or may not finally be getting its own training facilities, part of the wider restructuring overseen by new Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi who was appointed in December.

News dropped in May of the team’s latest plan that also includes moving the academy and OCB to one single site: unifying every level of the club into one coherent pathway. It’s the third iteration of plans that first originated with the Lake Nona site in January 2016. That promise was quietly put on the back burner before though. In November 2018, the team announced that it would build a new shared facility for Orlando City and the Orlando Pride out in Osceola County. Fast-forward to May 2019 and the plan has changed again with the Pride now set to be based at a new facility at Sylvan Lake Park with the Osceola site now set for City, OCB, and the academy.

The relevance of this to O’Connor is that Muzzi now appears to be firmly in the driving seat. Irurita was hired by Potempa who was relieved of his GM duties earlier in the year and replaced by Marcelo Neveleff, who now reports directly to Luiz Muzzi. Now we’re at the point where Irurita is also out. O’Connor was brought in under the ill-fated Niki Budalić and while I’m not suggesting the two don’t have a good working relationship, it would not be difficult for Muzzi to look back at O’Connor’s body of work and thank him for steadying the ship before handing over the reins to someone who can coach the team to the next level, a move similar to what Matías Almeyda has now done in San Jose to incredible effect.

Marc Skinner

Skinner, meanwhile, is perhaps on the longest leash of all with the Pride roster most in need of some major surgery. Despite a very worrying start, the 2019 squad now sits as Orlando’s most in-form team after taking nine points from its last five games. It’s a points total City has to go back nine games to top and more than OCB has achieved in its last 12 games. The bigger difference with the Orlando Pride, however, is not form nor circumstance, but support.

The Pride has only had one previous head coach. Tom Sermanni guided the team to the playoffs in his second season of a three-year stint before the club decided to mutually part ways at the end of 2018. Since then, Erik Ustruck was promoted to the position of the Orlando Pride’s first ever dedicated general manager and was quick to heap praise on Skinner. The crucial point is that there was no immediate time-frame for Skinner start winning for.

Despite the lack of wins at the start of the campaign, the process has been there for all to see and this year isn’t a playoff-or-bust situation like Orlando City may be. Skinner has also received extremely vocal support from his players, nine of whom have missed a large part of the season because of the World Cup and related commitments. You’d be hard pressed to find a more unified team, especially one under such pressure given the poor early results. This suggests there is more belief and confidence in Skinner to see out his project than there was with Heath, Kreis, Sermanni, Irurita, or perhaps even O’Connor.

Skinner has addressed the #SkinnerOut sentiment head on:

“I’ll take all the flack. You can hate me. ‘Sack Skinner,’ blah, blah, blah, whatever. I’m not going anywhere. Because this team believes in what we’re doing and I believe in what we’re doing, and we’re going to make sure we get to where we need to be.”

Therein lies the difference. Not only has there been an emphasis on longevity but also an openness about it, unlike Leitão, who described 2018’s second-worst MLS team as playoff caliber. That isn’t to say this wave of realism makes Skinner entirely immune. 2020 will act as the real test after he’s done one lap around NWSL and with a full off-season to shape the team.

Overall, I don’t see Marc Skinner going anywhere any time soon — not unless the Pride undo all their hard work and revert to early-season form. The team is already better than when he joined it with international players returning and will look forward to closing out the season with fight before a busy off-season under Skinner.

O’Connor’s safety, however, is more tenuous. I expect him to see out the rest of the year, but beyond that he really has to prove himself to Leitão and the OCSC staff. That doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the postseason but another showing like the Revs game won’t make the hierarchy believe he can take them further. While the deep U.S. Open Cup run bought him a lot of good sentiment, the team was also only one point shy of the final playoff spot at the time of the quarter-final shootout win. Now after falling seven points off pace, it’s not unrealistic to imagine another change of personnel in the off-season if the front office feels O’Connor has reached his peak and it needs to move on to someone with a higher ceiling. The bigger question if and when he does go is whether or not Orlando can finally make the right hire and give enough pieces to elevate the team to a genuine and consistent contender. Surely that’s not too much to ask for from an organization that has not yet met the expectations it once so brazenly set out to defy, right?