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Tale of Two Hires: A Microcosm of Ambition

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The difference between San Jose and Orlando on the pitch was a poetic illustration of their differences off it.

MLS: Orlando City SC at San Jose Earthquakes Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Orlando City traveled to face the San Jose Earthquakes in a battle between 2018’s last-place finishers in each conference. The Lions famously finished bottom of the Eastern Conference with a league-record 74 goals conceded. But the Earthquakes weren’t much better, conceding 71 goals, which would have been the new record if not for Orlando. Not only did the Earthquakes finish bottom in the West but the team actually finished bottom of the pile across the league as a whole, a hefty seven points behind Orlando City.

Fast-forward to 2019 and following Saturday’s convincing 3–0 win over Orlando, the Earthquakes now staggeringly sit second in the West behind only LAFC. Orlando City, too, has improved and is well on pace to concede a franchise record low number of goals just 12 months after setting a record worst. But for all the improvement, some things have stayed the same.

The Lions sit outside the playoff places in ninth with statistical modelling by FiveThirtyEight projecting just a 20% chance the team makes its first ever postseason with five games left. San Jose, meanwhile, has a healthy 83% chance. The difference? While the Orlando City front office turned its attention towards the USL Championship to hire its new head coach, the Quakes went shopping in the Concacaf Champions League.

San Jose’s turnaround can largely be explained by the arrival of new head coach Matías Almeyda, who stepped down from Liga MX’s Chivas Guadalajara back in June, 2018. just days before Orlando City fired Jason Kreis. He left Mexico on a high and on his own terms having guided his team to Concacaf Champions League victory and was voted Concacaf Coach of the Year. Now, he looks to take his San Jose team to the playoffs where it’d be many analysts’ dark horses for the 2019 MLS Cup and he is a strong contender for MLS Coach of the Year.

It seems like a meteoric, but not unlikely, rise. Indeed, when the Argentine was hired in October, there were plenty of people already touting the Quakes for a good season based purely on that hire alone. After all, sometimes a top class coach is all it takes, an area not subject to the league’s salary cap. An area previously overlooked in the U.S., now an increasing number of teams have seen the value and are looking towards the so-called “Designated Coach” in MLS 3.0. We saw an Atlanta United team that thrived under Tata Martino immediately stall at the hands of Frank de Boer (for a while, anyway), while the New England Revolution became the hottest new thing in the league with Bruce Arena in charge following a turgid start to the season under the stewardship of Brad Friedel.

It’s important that you don’t read what I’m not saying. You may infer from me naming three coaching changes that have vastly changed a team’s fortunes that I’m advocating the sacking of James O’Connor. I’m not, and it all goes back to a word I dropped into the title of this piece: ambition. Orlando’s ambition is one that, if O’Connor were to depart, the team would likely once again turn its attention to the USL for its next hire or maybe an out of work MLS coach.

What the team wouldn’t go for is an Almeyda or indeed a Guillermo Barros Schelotto like Greg Seltzer of MLSsoccer.com suggested was possible back during the latest coaching search. That’s not the front office’s intention. Scrapping for seventh and hoping for a good cup run is the level the team aims to compete at and O’Connor has proved he is as good a candidate as any for that purpose. What he won’t do, however, is take a roster and elevate it like Almeyda has done. In fact, he won’t even take a roster at all.

The 2019 season has been all about another rebuild for Orlando City. The team, just like it did upon hiring Kreis to replace Adrian Heath in 2016, has committed to another significant overhaul. After all, if a team doesn’t make the playoffs then the players must not be good enough. So you get rid of them and bring in some newer, better ones.

Orlando City’s 2019 roster accounts for only 45.74% of the MLS minutes played last season. Contrast that to San Jose which has retained a staggering 88.11% of its 2018 minutes that finished dead last. In total, only 39.56% of Orlando City’s minutes this season have been played by players that were at the club last season, while that figure is 59.99% for the Quakes. You could argue that the San Jose squad is much stronger than Orlando’s but the point still stands: it is only under the right coach that those players have been able to perform remarkably better.

Coaching matters if you’re going to actually compete for silverware. At the moment, that’s not where Orlando City is aiming. Playoffs? Yes. Silverware? No. Saturday night was all the proof needed. Albeit a depleted Orlando City side, the Lions were completely pulled apart by San Jose in the first half. They were pressed high, pinned deep, passed around, subjected to clinical finishing and forced to feed on scraps when it came to their own chances. What were O’Connor’s tactics? The early goals but pay to City’s usual West Coast plan of hanging on in there and trying to steal a goal on the break for a point. Void of ideas or new play-maker Mauricio Pereyra, the Lions never looked like scoring.

So while we keep praising how the ship has been steadied defensively by O’Connor in his first full season in charge, and that is not a feat to be diminished, the questions now become whether or not Orlando takes that next step.

Does the team evolve into a better attacking outfit during O’Connor’s second full season? Does the Irishman even get the time and tools (just look at Orlando City’s Designated Player history to see how ambitious this team really is — Bryan Róchez and Giles Barnes anyone?) to help push the team over the line? Or has O’Connor simply reached his ceiling?

I’ll take a moment to refer back to my preseason prediction: “Orlando City is a small fish compared to the MLS elite and will be scrapping for the last handful of playoff spots — but they are well within reach.”

Currently this is a team in ninth, capable of seventh, but just as close to eleventh. I kept my expectations realistic and they’ve just about been met. If your perspective and perception is anything other than aligned with the front office’s then you’re likely disappointed by a good cup run and still harboring minor playoff ambitions in September. But don’t lose sight that this club is closer to the USL Championship than it is to the Concacaf Champions League.