BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. — Orlando City midfielder James O’Connor spent last Friday evening waiting for a lightning storm to pass over Dayton, Ohio, before running out onto the artificial football field at Bellbrook High School in front of a few hundred fans.
A few hours later, following his side’s 2-2 tie with Dayton Dutch Lions, O’Connor and his teammates boarded their bus for a 255-mile trek to Pittsburgh. They arrived at 3:40 a.m., just over 15 hours before taking to another unglamorous high school football field in Bridgeville, Pa.
Such an itinerary seems a world away from the first 15 years of O’Connor’s playing career, spent in the plush English Premier League-caliber stadiums of Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday. Not that the Irishman seems unduly concerned.
“It doesn’t faze me whatsoever,” said O’Connor after Orlando’s 1-1 tie with Pittsburgh Riverhounds in Bridgeville last Saturday. “I’m more interested in winning games and trying to win the league.”
Former Wednesday captain O’Connor played 20 times for The Owls during their promotion run from England’s third tier last season, though the 32-year-old didn’t feature beyond a 1-0 win over Leyton Orient on November 26. His move across the pond to the reigning United Soccer Leagues Pro Division champions owed much to the future ambitions of Orlando and O’Connor.
“There’s big plans in Orlando,” O’Connor said. “It’s definitely a club on the up.”
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber has held talks with Orlando’s owners and the city’s political leaders to explore the viability of future expansion in Central Florida. The club recently acquired a 40-acre soccer complex to house training for all levels from the professional roster down to its youth teams, and success on the field has helped to grow The Lions’ fan base. Finding a suitable location for a soccer-specific stadium is the next hurdle to overcome.
“When you add into the mix MLS, the manager, the ownership group, there’s a lot of things that made me think this is definitely a great place to come,” O’Connor said.
The Dubliner missed Orlando’s 3-0 win over Harrisburg City Islanders on June 22 as he was completing his UEFA Pro License, the final stage of the European governing body’s coaching qualifications, back in the United Kingdom. He returned to play the full 90 minutes at Dayton before spending most of Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh sat on the substitutes’ bench next to Head Coach Adrian Heath.
“It’s been great for me to be able to listen and pay attention to what he says,” O’Connor said. “He’s somebody I can learn from, so that was a big factor in me coming out here.”
Orlando dominated long spells of Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh without threatening Riverhounds goalkeeper Hunter Gilstrap. Heath called upon O’Connor’s playing experience with seven minutes remaining to salvage a point after former New York Red Bulls midfielder Matt Kassel had nodded the hosts into a late lead. Kevin Molino’s injury-time leveler edged Orlando four points clear of Charleston Battery at the top of the standings having played one additional game.
“We were looking to get more points this weekend than we’ve achieved,” O’Connor said. “That killer pass just eludes us at times.
“It’s something that we’ve been working on, and I’m sure we’ll put things right.”