If one thing is clear after Lions head coach James O’Connor’s first public comments since joining Orlando City, it’s simply that he gets it.
O’Connor understands the difficult situation his new team finds itself in. He understands the demands that ownership has for the Club. He understands the demands the supporters have for the Club. And he understands what it will take to get there.
“When you look at the quality of the players and how good they are, you get the old cliché about form being temporary and class being permanent,” O’Connor said at Monday’s introductory press conference. “It’s about trying to remind the players just how good they are. When you look at the quality that they have, it’s something that really excites me.”
As it should. Orlando City was lauded for its offseason rebuild that brought in the likes of Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram and Uri Rosell, among others, to Orlando. On paper, the roster is loaded, and the players have shown it on the field at times. For one reason or another, it just stopped clicking. But there are still 17 games left to make the playoffs, and the Lions have every intention of being there.
Which is why the move to bring in O’Connor. A former USL Pro Lion, O’Connor was here when City would take the pitch expecting to win. So when O’Connor took his first head coaching job at Louisville City in the USL in 2015, he took that winning mentality with him.
And under O’Connor, Louisville did a whole lot of winning. Right out of the gate, O’Connor ed LouCity to the Eastern Conference Final and again in 2016. In 2017, LouCity finally won it all.
“I wouldn’t have left Louisville for any MLS team. I just wouldn’t because of the people that are there,” O’Connor said on Orlando City SoccerCast. “But Orlando is different. This is a very special place.”
It was in 2012 that O’Connor moved his family from England to Orlando to continue his pro career. He played for the Lions at the Citrus Bowl and at the Wide World of Sports. He saw how the supporters followed the team wherever they went. He lifted trophies.
And while the Club is staunchly focused on making another trophy run in 2018 — whether in the MLS Cup Playoffs, the U.S. Open Cup or even both — the first task at hand is fitting into a locker room that remains very close-knit.
“The biggest thing for me is developing a relationship,” O’Connor said. “The players are going to pass judgements on any new coach that comes in. You have to earn their trust and earn their respect. But I think equally there is a determination of the players to go and enjoy football again and get back to winning ways.
“It’s more about making sure we are moving together and we get what we all want, which is to start winning games.”
But what was most interesting about O’Connor’s introductory press conference was the way he talked about the supporters. To the credit of Adrian Heath and Jason Kreis, they too appreciated the supporters and understood how important their relationship with the Club is. But O’Connor spoke as if minding that relationship was as important as the soccer itself.
“The confidence is something that needs to be brought back to the team,” O’Connor said. “The togetherness with the supporters and really trying to marry everything together. That’s going to be something I’m going to be very intentional about trying to do. I think it’s a fantastic football club, I really do.
“When you look at the support base that we have here, the opportunity to create a real passionate atmosphere where teams don’t enjoy coming to play in Orlando — that’s something we need to do. We need to get the supporters, the players, everybody back on the same page and make sure that we’re all pushing in the right direction.”