If you’ve talked to James O’Connor at any point over the last several weeks and even back into the end of last season — or listened to/read his words, for that matter — the Orlando City head coach has been setting his focus on one big change that he wants to make at the club: the culture.
It’s a topic that’s come up plenty of times throughout the last couple of seasons as being a real problem for the club, and even as the Lions head into their fifth season in MLS on their third different head coach, it’s still not a discussion that’s ready to go away.
From day one of this preseason camp, it’s been a theme of both the players and O’Connor.
“I think togetherness, I think that’s probably the biggest factor,” O’Connor said back on January 21, the Lions’ first day of training, about what kind of culture he wants to build at the club. “I think then, obviously, there’s so many factors off that. We spent a lot of time sort of speaking about the culture we want to create. Showing instances and examples of what are the expected behaviors we’re looking for. We expect high, intense work from individuals and then, collectively supporting each other and making sure that we finish preseason in a really strong position.”
Roster turnover has been big part of Orlando City’s offseason once again, which means opportunities to bring in fresh players keen on fitting into that culture.
The last couple of preseasons, former head coach Jason Kreis took the players to Jacksonville for two weeks at the start of preseason, a trip that was always intended as a way to start the season without any distractions and keep the players close together to build bonds. It never really worked.
This year, O’Connor and his coaching staff started the preseason at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Everything we’ve heard from players and coaches since suggest that this experience was different.
On Saturday night after the Lions’ 2-1 Orlando City Invitational victory over New York City FC, forward Tesho Akindele was asked about his budding connection on the field with fellow forward Chris Mueller, to which he credited the time at IMG for helping develop — not just with Mueller, but the rest of the squad.
“I think that’s very true,” Akindele said, responding to a statement in which Mueller had said the two weeks at IMG brought everyone closer. “One thing at IMG, we were in these villas, so there was like six people to a room, and there was a living room. So like in our living room, we were playing FIFA, I was beating Matt [Bodiford, Orlando City’s communications manager] all day, everybody was getting the works. But yeah, everybody was coming through, where as in a hotel it’s easy to just get locked in. The villas made it easy for everybody to flow in and out for two weeks, and we really got to know each other.”
For years, we’ve always heard about the team having its certain cliques. “Kreis’ players” the “Latin group” etc. It was individual groups with their own objectives rather than one big team.
Aside from just living conditions, it makes it easier for O’Connor to control the players and how they stay together.
“If you’re having breakfast together at 6:30 like we are, if we’re doing that and we’re doing it in Orlando then guys are getting up at different times and traveling different distances,” O’Connor said on January 21 about having camp isolated at IMG, rather than in Orlando. “This way, we can control the environment. I think it’s important that when you’re training as hard as the players are going to be, the food, the rest the recovery and the environment is controlled. That gives us an opportunity, by coming here, to control all those aspects.”
For Sacha Kljestan, 2018 was far from anything he’s experienced experienced before in his career — and he’s played for Chivas USA (RIP).
“Personally, I’d say it’s been the hardest, most difficult, most frustrating season of my career,” Kljestan said at the end of last season. “Thirteenth year now, I think, of my career and this is the first losing season I’ve had, so it’s been very difficult to deal with.”
Ready to move on last season, Kljestan is already seeing the positive changes happening around him.
“I think James has done a very good job of bringing in a good group of guys with a good mentality,” he said recently. “And then it’s on the players for everybody to buy in, and so I don’t know, we’re about three and a half weeks in now and the level of commitment, of buy-in, the togetherness of the group inside and outside of the locker room is at a very good level. It’s been a fun preseason so far. It’s been very hard, but it’s been fun. I think we’re pushing in the right direction, so I think everybody is very optimistic right now, including myself.”
In comparing this year’s squad to the one he joined from the New York Red Bulls last January, Kljestan says the team is in a good spot camaraderie-wise right now.
“The mentality and the willingness,” has been one of the biggest changes Kljestan has seen in the new group of players brought in during an offseason of overhaul. “I think the willingness to learn, the willingness to try something new, maybe with a new formation, and a willingness to be uncomfortable, and I think a vulnerability of everybody.”
“The group has been great,” he later added. “It’s a real feeling of togetherness in the locker room, the spirit has been great, it’s exciting to be around. It’s refreshing.”
Only time will tell how much of this is just talk and how much is real, inspired change within the Orlando City locker room. A long season brings a lot of challenges. Injuries test the depth of the squad, losing streaks — no matter how long or short — can change the mentality of a group, and in the past, adversity could destroy an Orlando City team.
But maybe this team is finally different. At least that’s what the players are saying.
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