Sunday’s 5-2 loss at home to the Chicago Fire was nowhere near the ideal way to head into the offseason, limping to the finish line on an eight-game winless streak — the longest in the league — and closing the book on another year without playoff soccer in the City Beautiful.
Orlando City was in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race through the middle of August, having had a strong run through the summer months — a U.S. Open Cup Semi-Final run included — but things went south quick as injuries, stale performances, and tougher competition got in their way, as they only managed to earn four of the 24 possible points up for grabs following their 1-0 win over Sporting KC on August 14, their last win of 2019.
The goal heading into the season for head coach James O’Connor and Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi was to rebuild the culture, lay down a groundwork, and ultimately push for a playoff spot in the expanded postseason field. Orlando was able to do all three of those things, even if an 11th-place finish in the Eastern Conference for the second year in-a-row attempts to tell that story in a different light.
A year after setting the Major League Soccer record for most goals allowed in a single season (74), the Lions improved vastly on defense and set a club record for *fewest* goals allowed in a season (52), in addition to their nine-point jump in total points (sure, the bar was low).
Individually, the Lions also got a strong amount of production from newcomers like Tesho Akindele (10 goals, 2 assists), Nani (12 goals, 10 assists), Ruan, Kamal Miller, Benji Michel (5 goals, 1 assist), Santiago Patiño (3 goals, 2 assists), João Moutinho, Brian Rowe, Robin Jansson, and Sebastián Méndez.
“Barring today I think we’ve been a lot harder to play against this year,” O’Connor said after Sunday’s match. “We’ve probably set a record for goals against in the league despite conceding so many goals even today. I think we can point to the defensive aspect and say we’ve made real improvement, put ourselves in a position now to be able to go and strike forward next year because I think when you look at the availability of some funds that become available now, I think we’ve given ourselves a strong foundation to be able to go forward.
“I think when you look at the excitement that Benji [Michel] brings, you’ve got Chris Mueller who can come off the bench, you’ve got Santiago [Patiño], you’ve got Kamal Miller. We’ve got multiple players that have become international players this year that weren’t beforehand so I think when you sit and analyze it, we have to go through a load of things, but I think the biggest thing is we’ve given ourselves a strong foundation to move on in the offseason with the amount of money that’s going to become available.”
But looking at the bigger picture, it’s pretty obvious at this point that this has, and always has been, Muzzi’s team since he was appointed as the figurehead to lead the soccer operations in December 2018.
In an interview with FOX 35, Muzzi said he “could have come in and just made a change” when he joined the club but opted to give O’Connor the opportunity to prove his worth throughout the 2019 season.
But even before the season kicked off, Muzzi spoke about the change of culture he envisioned, adding he wanted to bring the development academy, Orlando City B and the MLS first team under one roof — the writing may have been on the wall all along.
In an interview with local media in January, Muzzi harped on that idea.
“Would it be nice to have everybody in the same spot? Sure, it would be great,” Muzzi said during that January interview. “And I’m talking about Orlando City, I’m talking about the vertical integration, from the academy to the second team, and first team. Now, we have the plan. How are we going to implement it? Now we have to find ways to implement it.”
Fast forward a couple of months to May and Muzzi’s vision started coming to fruition when the club announced it was essentially shaking up its training grounds by relocating the Development Academy (DA) and Orlando City B from Montverde to Kissimmee, officially joining the MLS first-team under one roof starting in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Orlando Pride of the NWSL would inherit a renovated Sylvan Lake Park training ground.
But on that same day in May, Muzzi brought in Marcelo Neveleff as the Development Academy director to oversee Orlando City B, essentially pushing out OCB general manager Mike Potempa, sporting director Oguchi Onyewu and eventually head coach Fernando Argila — who was replaced by U-19 coach Roberto Sibaja.
Orlando City B finished in last place in the USL League One standings, boosting a 4-20-4 record.
When the OSJ asked Muzzi last summer if Neveleff would assume the GM role for Orlando City B, Muzzi hinted that was the case and both will be in charge of hiring the next head coach for OCB in 2020.
Now, heading into the final weeks of the MLS campaign, the Lions began a skid that saw them close out the season on an eight-game winless run and as the only team in the league to never post back-to-back wins… and most importantly, miss out on the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year.
Perhaps all the reasoning to fire O’Connor to start the 2020 regular season in a new direction.
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