Extra: How James O'Connor Has Made Orlando More Competitive
Welcome to the first OC Lion's Blog extra. An extra is just a post where I go in detail about something significant about our club. This is probably going to be a lengthy read, so strap up and get ready for an in depth look at how James O'Connor (JOC) has made us more competitive since arriving midway through last season.
Let's start at the beginning. On June 28th, 2018 Orlando announced the hiring of former player James O'Connor. He played for the team when we were in USL at the twilight of his career. He was a part of the squad that won the USL trophy in 2013. His career consisted of playing for mid-to-low table teams in the Premier League including Stoke, West Brom, Burnley, and Sheffield Wednesday before joining the Lions in 2012. He made 525 professional appearances and scored 33 goals throughout his career. He then moved to coaching, where he won the 2017 USL trophy with Louisville FC. After a fast start to the 2018 MLS season then a horrific plunge, Orlando City parted ways with previous coach Jason Kreis and hired James O'Connor soon after.
His first match in charge of the team was against LAFC on the road, where he had no time to prepare the team and succumbed to a 4-1 defeat. However, his next match (his first at home) saw the team put out an inspired performance against Toronto FC to win 2-1 at home after going 9 games without a point in the MLS. He then proceeded to lose 1-0 away to Philadelphia in the quarterfinals of the US Open Cup before losing his 3rd game in charge to the Columbus Crew. Yes, his 3rd game was the one where the referee called that ghost penalty, the penalty call so bad that the head of PRO Referees called O'Connor and apologized for the blatant mistake. That game hit our confidence where it hurt and started another slide in the MLS. This time we were a bit more competitive, earning a draw against NE and almost stealing a win against DC, if only Johnson passed the ball to Pinho in wide open space instead of trying to dribble it himself (I'll never forgive him for that). Again, this late result hurt our confidence and we were very poor for the remainder of the season. O'Connor was also figuring out his squad and used a number of experimental lineups to learn more about each player he had at his disposal. The remainder of the season was poor and JOC only got his 2nd win in charge of the team in late October, 3 and a half months after taking over the team.
Time For a Rebuild
Obviously, the team needed another overhaul similar to the one we saw the previous winter. This time though, the front office had changed, and a new structure was being built for the future of the team/club. We traded players for money and draft picks in order to build towards the future. We also bought some good young players who could contribute towards our future. We got Mendez (22), Michel (21), Ruan (24), Ranjitsingh (25), Moutinho (21), Jansson (27, young for a CB), and Acosta (21, on loan with option of a permanent buy for only $75,000 in General Allocation Money at end of season). These players joined up with our draft picks of Patino and Miller (both 22) to help round out an already strong young core of players that included Mueller (22), Lindley (21), Colman (20), Da Silva (20), and O'Neill (25). James O'Connor was helping to build a young core that could compete at the MLS level now and in the future. All that was needed was some experience. Enter Luis Nani. This transfer is down to Luiz Muzzi flying out to meet Nani in person and explain to him why he would fit here in Orlando. The captain has been a massive success and has really turned this team around. He is tied for 5th in the league in assists with 7, and tied for 6th in the league for goals with 8 (according to mlssoccer.com/stats). He joined Kljestan, Sane, Rowe, and Dwyer as the experienced leaders of this team. Everything was starting to fall in place for O'Connor to have a strong first full season in Orlando.
Let The Games Begin
James O'Connor's side started the season on a sour note. Two draws that both could have and should have been wins against NYCFC (non-penalty call) and Chicago (last second equalizer while they were down a man) and a loss to Montreal at home saw the team have 2 points out of a possible 9. The first win and clean sheet of the season came on the road against NYRB. After this result, Orlando started a weird stretch where the next 5 results were LWLWD. Then a rough stretch of games that showed the fans exactly what this team was made of. We played Toronto, Atlanta, and Seattle, the last 3 MLS Cup champions, back-to-back-to-back. This is where JOC showed how competitive he has made this team. Although we lost all 3, we were the better team for long stretches of each of these games. With better finishing and luckier circumstances, we could have easily come out of this stretch with 2 wins and a tie. This was against 3 extremely strong teams, and although the results didn't go our way, this is when I knew O'Connor was the right man for the job. We were finally competitive in big matches and we were proving it. After this run of games, Orlando had a real upturn in form. The next 5 games saw a form of WLWWW, including a 5-1 thumping of FC Cincinnati, a 1-0 loss at home vs LA Galaxy where Orlando missed a penalty and a sitter (AKA we should have won that game), a 3-0 win on the road to Montreal, and two Open Cup wins for the team. After those 5 games, Orlando faced another interesting set of results. These 5 matches saw a form of LWLDW. The first loss was against DC after Rooney's 60 yard chip. The second loss was against Philadelphia at home where we were struggling but still in the match before the red card at the end of the first half. The positive results include a 2-0 road win against the struggling Columbus Crew, a draw on the road against top of the East Philadelphia (a game we almost won, if not for a 90th minute equalizer), and a win on penalties to hand NYCFC only their THIRD loss of the entire season. That brings us to today. We currently sit at 9th in the East with a 6-4-9 record (22 points) and a 0 goal difference. We are currently 1 point out of the 7th (playoff spot) and 6 points away from 6th. Also, we are in the semi-finals of the US Open Cup for the first time in club history.
The tactics of the team early on in the season looked pretty confusing. We were starting games defensively in a 3-4-1-2 setup (probably due to injury and not full fitness). It seemed that we didn't have much of an offensive threat in this system and we had to rely on our impact subs to come on and change the game. Whether it was Mueller, Nani, or Dwyer, we were relying on the impact subs to make the difference after setting up defensively for the start of games. The defensive start however never seemed to work after defensive errors saw opposing teams score within the opening 15 minutes countless times. It seemed like every game we were conceding in the first 15 minutes in the early stages of the season. That started to slow down a bit after O'Connor switched to a 4-3-3 formation, which saw a starting lineup of Rowe, Ruan, Sane, Jansson, Moutinho, Higuita, Mendez, Johnson, Mueller, Akindele, and Nani (read right to left) start for 3 games in a row. This was the lineup when we destroyed FC Cincinnati 5-1 and O'Connor has stuck with the 4-3-3 ever since. The tactics in this formation are much more obvious and effective. The team take an approach similar to those mid-table teams JOC used to play for in England. They are hard working, rugged teams who are strong in every match and don't give up easily. The tactics include working hard to win the 50/50 balls in midfield and bursting onto the counter to score. If you look at the last 15 goals Orlando have scored that weren't set pieces, I guarantee that almost all of them are from us winning the ball in midfield and countering up the field. Think of the last goal we just scored in open play. We win the ball in midfield, send Nani up the left flank, and he crosses it to Mueller who scores with a header. That is our attacking tactic right there in a nutshell and it has worked for the most part. We have also been pretty clinical in general. In the Columbus game we had 3 shots on target and 2 goals. In the Philadelphia away game we had a similar amount of shots on target and 2 goals.
Defensively, we set up by keeping a medium-to-high line so the other team can't get behind us easily. Instead, we force the opposition out wide and force them to score off crosses. Unfortunately, JOC clearly tells the players to stay narrow and not go flying out to stop the supply of crosses, causing a flurry of dangerous balls into the box that usually lead to goals. We are very poor at clearing the ball and I wish he would work with the team on how to properly clear a ball. Out and away is the correct answer if you were wondering, not back to the center of the field where they have players who can easily recycle possession or shoot (think Dos Santos goal when we faced LA Galaxy). Luckily, the team have shown that they can learn from their mistakes. Earlier in the season, Ruan was slow to react to a ball in the box and the opposing player beat him too it and scored. The next game Ruan made sure every time the ball came near him in the box, it was cleared out for a corner or throw in. Similarly, Jansson faced a one-on-one a couple games after the FC Cincinnati game and held up the player way better than he had when he allowed the goal in the FC Cincinnati game. Anyways, I understand the instruction of staying narrow to an extent because tricky players can get behind our defenders easily with a quick bit of skill or 1-2 touch passing (Seattle did this to us), but it is so frustrating watching the team not close down crosses and allowing the other team to aim at their target men with freedom, all while knowing that we aren't that good at clearing the ball. Hopefully JOC can start addressing this next week when we finally have a week off to train before we travel to Portland. He also needs to work on not conceding when we set up fully defensively in the dying minutes of a game. We've conceded late goals when we get in our defensive shell (that's what I call it) against Chicago, New England, NYCFC, and Philadelphia. That is too any late goals conceded and it needs to stop if we want to make the playoffs or win the Open Cup this season. In general though, the new 4-3-3 tactics have been successful and have produced a flurry of positive performances recently, all thanks to O'Connor changing his early season tactics.
What This Means
If you look at this season as a whole, there are currently 2 games out of 22 where I would say Orlando were not competitive and did not have a good enough performance to warrant at least a point. Those 2 were Montreal at home and Real Salt Lake on the road. In both games we set up defensively and did extremely poor. We just didn't look interested in the games until the later stages when we had to try and get a result. A 90+3 minute Dwyer tap in and a 81st minute free kick by Nani respectively saw us score last in each game, but the results were 3-1 and 2-1. Other than that, we have been very competitive in each and every game of the season, something no other Orlando team can come close to saying. JOC's new tactics have set us up for success and with the young core, a new attacking option in Robinho (24) for added depth in the attack, and a mentality of improvement, we have a great present and future awaiting us under James O'Connor. The O'Connor Out movement needs to stop and hopefully after reading this, if you were still on that train, you have hopped off and decided to back our manager. He has had success everywhere he has gone in United States Soccer, and I don't see that stopping any time soon.
Please let me know your thoughts on all of this on my social media accounts, I would love hear other's opinions on O'Connor:
That's it from me. I'll catch you all in the Columbus pre match report tomorrow.
'Til next time, this has been Gavin Rushnell and #VamosOrlando