James O'Connor - ORL - close up

Why Orlando City parted ways with James O'Connor and what comes next

The running total is now three head coaches, two general managers and a chief soccer officer. Yet despite the slew of front office and coaching changes in their five-year MLS history, Orlando City remains moored in the league basement.

With Monday’s parting of ways with James O’Connor following the team’s 11th place finish in the Eastern Conference to miss out on a playoff place yet again, the 2015 expansion team is now searching for its fourth head coach as the powers that be shake things up once more.

In this case, it appears the kingmaker is Luiz Muzzi, installed as executive vice-president of soccer operations in December 2018 after moving across from FC Dallas, where he had been director of soccer since 2012.

Muzzi took over after Niki Budalic was ousted as general manager in November last year. Budalic was himself promoted from assistant GM to the full role in December 2016, having filled the void after the short-lived reign of Armando Carneiro as chief soccer officer in late 2015. Carneiro’s appointment sparked original GM Paul McDonough’s departure to Atlanta (and now Inter Miami).

In the midst of those front office moves, original head coach Adrian Heath – now steering Minnesota in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs – was axed in mid-2016 before his replacement Jason Kreis was likewise shown the door just two years later. There are multiple reasons why the club opted to make O’Connor its third ex-head coach to bite the dust.

The fact O’Connor wasn’t a Muzzi appointee suggests the latest move is a result of the EVP’s desire to have full oversight of the playing side. The background chatter amid a failed push for a first playoff appearance in club history had become overwhelming in recent weeks, and the eight-game winless run to finish the season — and firmly dash those hopes — looks to have sealed O’Connor’s fate.

In logistical terms, it also makes practical sense for the team to clean house now. There will be new training and academy facilities in 2020, and Muzzi can justifiably point to wanting a clean slate to work with for what will be a pivotal year.

Now the question is no longer one of who is calling the shots, but where does Muzzi take the team, and who do they bring in next?

The obvious candidate he will surely want to consider is his ex-Dallas running mate Oscar Pareja. The pair spent five years together in Texas before Pareja left to become manager of Club Tijuana in Liga MX last November.

Pareja steered the Xolos into the playoffs at the end of his first season, only to suffer a first-round defeat, and the team currently sits just outside the playoff spots after 12 games of the 17-game Apertura season. Tijuana have had no fewer than nine managers in seven years, making it often the hottest of seats for a coach. If Pareja is afforded the luxury to decide his own future, though, it’s doubtful he would opt to leave so soon, even with the potential appeal in teaming up with Muzzi again.

If not Pareja, looking to Latin America still seems logical. Muzzi brought in Argentine-born Marcelo Neveleff — an assistant coach at New England — to oversee the Academy this year, and there is a clear simpatico with the club’s Brazilian front office leaders.

The likes of Javier Torrente, Pedro Caixinha and Diego Alonso are all recent Liga MX managers looking for a new position who might jump at the chance of an MLS opportunity. And, while unlikely, you can’t rule out Orlando taking a run at Jurgen Klinsmann, recently back in the frame for a top-flight job after sitting on the sidelines since his axing as US Men’s National Team boss in 2018.

There will certainly be others in the frame once Muzzi sits down with CEO Alex Leitao to discuss the way forward, as it seems clear the decision to axe O’Connor was only made once the team’s playoff fate became clear two weeks ago.

The new incumbent will certainly have some significant pieces to build on with the likes of recent signing Mauricio Pereyra and Nani in midfield, and a defense completely reshaped under O’Connor that acquitted itself well when fully fit. The team’s main failing this year was in the goal-scoring department, and that will be the key area for Muzzi – along with his new head coach — to address.

Simon Veness covered Orlando City for MLSsoccer.com from 2015-18 and is a contributor to the weekly Orlando Derby soccer radio show on 96.9 The Game, as well as a radio color analyst for City’s game broadcasts.


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