James O'Connor walks to bench at PHI
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

James O'Connor, Luiz Muzzi agree 2019 has marked progress for Orlando City

SANFORD, Fla. – This Saturday’s home match (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, on DAZN in Canada) against the New England Revolution is the kind Orlando City coach James O’Connor craves. With four games left in the regular season, it’s an Eastern Conference six-pointer that could shape the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff picture.

In reflecting on the season has thus far and the opportunity ahead, O’Connor thinks the growth is obvious.  

“I think everybody can see the change, everyone can see the progress,” the coach said. “But equally we want to get to the playoffs. Our focus hasn’t changed. We want to make sure that we’re trying to achieve our goal. We’ve got four games left, so we have to give absolutely everything.”

The Lions are four points away from the seventh and final playoff spot in the East, one season after conceding an MLS record 74 goals and finishing with an 8-22-4 record. O’Connor, who was appointed head coach midway through the 2018 season, was tasked with turning things around after the Lions fired Jason Kreis during the summer.

The club eventually parted ways with general manager Niki Budalic at the end of the 2018 campaign and brought in Luiz Muzzi from FC Dallas as their executive vice president of soccer operations. 

While glory might not come in 2019, signs of forward momentum are there. Orlando made their deepest run in the U.S. Open Cup last month before losing in the semifinals to rivals and eventual champions Atlanta United. Defensively, the Lions have conceded only 41 goals, currently good for fourth-fewest in the East.  

“There’s no magic wand that’s like, ‘Boom!,’ and everything is done,” Muzzi told MLSsoccer.com. “I thinking making it to the Open Cup semifinal, could’ve won that game. The Atlanta hurdle it’s one that we’re going to have to figure out, as well. But if you look at the whole season, it’s new players and the way the team is playing together, interacting inside and out of the field, there’s a lot to be proud of this year.” 

Still, that doesn’t detract from the club’s goal.

“We’re in the hunt to make the playoffs, making it or not making it, it doesn’t change the fact that’s it been a good year for us,” Muzzi added. “I think there’s a lot of positives, and we’re going to work off based on that.” 

Perhaps surprisingly, it's the attacking end that has plagued the Lions.

Orlando loaned Young Designated Player Josue Colman back to Cerro Porteno earlier this season. Striker Dom Dwyer has scored on just five of 55 shots. In midfield, Sacha Kljestan has just two assists after posting 51 across three seasons with the New York Red Bulls. Offseason star signing Nani has been what the Lions expected, producing 10 goals and eight assists. But new arrival Mauricio Pereyra, who’s currently recovering from a lower body injury, hasn’t had a chance to give Orlando that extra spark. 

Muzzi said the offense, like everything else, will be evaluated at the end of the season. He also remains bullish on Pereyra. 

“Mauricio is a really important piece for us,” Muzzi said. “We want him to help us now in this final push, but we fully think, after preseason and after everything next year, he’s going to be key for us.” 

Perhaps they key for Orlando going into 2020 will be building off this year’s culture change. 

“When you look at everything that’s changed culturally, it needs to come from everybody,” Muzzi said. “You need to change something from the top culturally, so it trickles down to the players. I think everybody is doing a great job in that, it’s not only training the team, it’s mentally. It’s getting everybody on the right place. … It’s a change of mentality.” 

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