A few weeks ago, I said I had lost faith in this team to win and that I would not be picking them to win again until they proved they could do so by winning a match in league play. Merely changing the head coach does not change that assessment for me--it's still the same bumbling players that have seemed incapable of fighting their way out of a wet paper bag for the last eight matches. But in the last week, we've gained some insights from interviews and previously published material that give me a few things to look for to see if there's a reason to hope that James O'Connor may be able to steer the ship in a more positive direction.
- Evidence of structure. From his interviews and sideline demeanor, I always had the impression of Jason Kreis that he was something of a controlling coach. It turns out, however, that this was completely the opposite of the case. In last week's revealing interview with Orlando Sentinel beat writer Jordan Culver, embattled Orlando City striker Justin Meram contrasted the style of Jason Kreis and his former manager in Columbus, Gregg Berhalter.
Meram said that under Berhalter, every player knew exactly what his role was and exactly where he was supposed to be and what he was expected to do. It was very controlled and very organized. By contrast, he says that Jason Kreis preferred giving his players free reign to be creative. It's clear this lack of structure is no good for the players on this Orlando City roster. Meram has visibly struggled on the pitch, seeming indecisive with the ball at his feet and uncertain if he should pass or shoot in any given situation.
But he's not the only one--defending MLS assist leader Sacha Kljestan has seemed to make poor decisions in passing and shooting under Kreis, and after the latest 4-0 drubbing by Atlanta admitted to having no words to express and no ideas to contribute what is so wrong and why they can't fix it.
It's abundantly clear that this team doesn't have the creative spirit to be allowed so much freedom. When you give them more rope, it only makes it easier for them to hang themselves, as the old saying goes. This team desperately needs structure and tight reins applied so that they don't have to think what to do--they only have to do what they've been told when they have been told in the way they have been told.
- Consequences for failure. There have been no consequences levied at this team for failure to perform. When starters go out and stink up the pitch with a lazy or inept performance, they are rewarded for it by being permitted to start again the next week. That cannot continue. I don't care who the player is--whether it's Will Johnson, Mohamed El-Munir, Justin Meram, Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, Joe Bendik, or Chris Mueller--when they commit blunders by turning the ball over, deflecting a ball into their own net, missing a point-blank shot, failing to clear a ball from the defensive penalty area, or failing to make a routine save, they need to be on the bench or left out of the 18 entirely the following match as punishment. The message that this coach needs to send is that if you are too incompetent to get the job done, you will be replaced with someone who can do the job--or who at least cares about trying harder to get the job done. If we continue to see poor performance rewarded by staying in the Starting XI, I predict that we won't see any changes in the results on the pitch.
- Scoring the first goal. I said above that I am not going to pick Orlando City to win again until they actually do win a match. And I honestly don't expect them to win this weekend at LAFC. However, it would be nice to see them put the first goal on the board. If they can manage to score first--even if they eventually lose by 3 - 2, 2 - 1, or even some wider margin, it will feel like progress. Watching last week's game at Atlanta United FC, the match felt like it was over in the third minute when Atlanta put the first goal on the board. Even when Orlando City played into the match and kept from conceding again in the first half, it never felt like they had a snowball's chance in hell of scoring a goal. That proved to be true, and then the team completely collapsed in the second half to let Atlanta run over and past them to score at will in the final 45 minutes.
No--I'm not predicting a win for Saturday. I won't predict a final score because quite frankly I don't know how the midweek match LAFC played will affect their team. But if I see evidence of structure in the way Orlando City plays, if I see consequences for failure for the players that screwed up the worst in the Atlanta United match last week, and if I see Orlando City put the first goal of the game on the board, I will feel like maybe there is some hope to salvage some dignity from the rest of the season. If we don't see any of these things, then I see no reason to expect that the James O'Connor era is going to be any different than what we've seen before.