Asian Football Interviews

Finding Comfort in the Uncomfortable: Matthew Orr’s Story

It is often said that in order to achieve excellence, one must push themselves beyond their limits. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Matthew Orr (安永佳) embodies just that. In his tumultuous journey to becoming Kitchee SC and Hong Kong’s talisman, he’s encountered many setbacks. However, he never once let them deter him from what he always wanted: to be a Professional Footballer.

An attacker to be more specific, and he hasn’t done a half bad job. Leading the line for his country and cementing a spot as part of a Kitchee SC front-three which boasts the Asian Champion League’s all-time top-scorer: Dejan Damjanović. In the last few months, he helped Hong Kong qualify for their first AFC Cup in 55 years, recording two goals and an assist as they progressed, whilst starting all six of Kitchee’s ACL group stage games as they qualified for the Knockout stage for the first time ever.

Picture Credits: Matthew Orr

Nonetheless, his story isn’t like most lethal forwards’ either. Matthew’s talents were almost wasted as a defender prior to becoming a professional. As a student-athlete at the University of San Francisco (USF) and University of Syracuses’ Football programs in the US from 18 to 22, Matt had to make many adjustments to try and settle in. Off the pitch, he was no stranger to the US after moving there at 15 to attend the illustrious high-performance IMG Academy (alma mater of ex-US internationals such as Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan), but on the pitch what came next shocked Matt. 

“I have always been an attacking player. That’s all I’d played as for years at Kitchee and IMG. During one of my first training sessions at USF, we were doing a finishing drill and I couldn’t miss. Everything I touched was going in. Our Head Coach then pulls me aside after training. I was thinking he was going to talk to me about my role in the team as an attacker after watching me during training. He asked me, “have you ever played as a defender?” I didn’t even know how to respond. That was his plan for me. Our assistant coach Alex Yi (a former MLS and Belgian Pro League defender) reiterated his point and told me he thought I could become a great defender. I wanted nothing more than to play so I sort of blindly agreed.”

He still earned honours by being selected to the West Coast Conference (WCC) All-Freshman team in 2016 and winning the WCC in 2017. He slowly moved into a more attacking role, progressing to left full-back. 

Picture Credits: Matthew Orr

It was a difficult change, moving from one end of the pitch to the other. Matt’s height (1.88m) and physique that he developed since moving to the US allowed him to win aerial challenges, and his technical ability from his days further up the pitch made him extremely useful in USF’s build-up play. 

However, in an honest account, he says “I was an awful defender and hated defending. I took every opportunity I had to get up the pitch and contribute that way.”

His performances were solid, but that wasn’t where he was meant to be, his coaches back home knew this and deep down he did too. 

As a part of the Hong Kong age-group national teams and Kitchee’s Youth set-up growing up, he had earned a reputation as an exciting and important attacking player. So when he would link up with either set-up they still viewed him as a vital cog in their attack, leaving Matt stuck in two worlds.

“I found myself pleading with both sets of staff to let me stick to a position. I would constantly have conversations with my coaches in the US about being an attacker, and vice versa. I just wanted to focus on one position, hone in on my skills for that position and develop as best as I could. Unfortunately, they had different opinions of how I fit in their systems, so at some point I just gave up on trying and just focused on what I could control.”

He did just that, accepting the circumstances that he was in, pushing himself to be a better player every day, be it as a defender or a forward. He did extra work every day knowing he needed to be more agile, stronger in 1v1s and a better crosser to improve as a defender. On the flip-side, he needed to improve his touches in and around the box and his finishing to develop as a forward. It wasn’t easy but he found comfort in being uncomfortable, grinding and not moaning about the predicament he found himself in.

Whilst all of this was going on, Matt was still doing amazing things. In fact, whilst he was still a student and defender at USF, he featured for Hong Kong against Singapore in the AFC U23 Qualifiers in 2019 as a forward.

Picture Credits: FAS

Furthermore, the reputation he had built as a youngster at Kitchee’s Academy had never faded, if anything it had grown stronger whilst he was in the US. With every opportunity he had to return to Hong Kong since leaving, he found himself back at Kitchee’s training centre training alongside his former teammates. And with each trip back, his rate of improvement was clear for everyone to see, especially for Kitchee’s now head coach: Alex Chu or Chu Sir as he’s known to Kitchee’s Academy players.

“Chu Sir has seen me play for more than half of my life and has always made me feel comfortable at Kitchee. I felt like he saw the same things I did, that my ex-teammates weren’t developing nearly as quickly as I was and some were stagnating. He definitely always saw me as an attacking player so when I broke the news to him of what was happening in the US he definitely didn’t agree.”

Picture Credits: Matthew Orr

As Matt grew older and developed more, he was no longer just joining in with the academy, it was now the first team. In fact, he was putting on the Kitchee stripes annually at the Hong Kong Football Club Soccer-Sevens, a massive event which boasted professional sides’ U21s/U23s teams from all around the world where they faced off against elite players such as Jack Grealish, Hamza Choudhury and Sean Longstaff over the years. 

Picture Credits: Matthew Orr

The 2019 edition was the first time I’d seen Matt play, and I would’ve never guessed being a defender was his day job. He was incredible in the centre of midfield, not looking out of place at all with the physicality or technicality of the Premier League players. He added a goal against a Leicester City side boasting, now first-team regular Luke Thomas, as the icing atop the cake.

If that wasn’t enough, he also featured for Kitchee that same summer against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in an exhibition match as part of their pre-season preparations. It was the perfect ending to a massive summer of football for Matt, where he played some of his best stuff. Everyone could see his talent and Kitchee knew they had a gem. But in what position would he fit in their crown?

Picture Credits: Matthew Orr

One position he never thought he’d find himself in is being known as ‘Hong Kong’s Cristiano Ronaldo’ which local media have dubbed him due to his striking good looks and footballing prowess. However, even Ronny has his ups and downs, and Matt is no different. Having returned to the US to complete his senior year at the University of Syracuse, Matt had a decision to make with his completion of school fast approaching.

“Being a student-athlete was an unforgettable experience and gave me a ‘back-up’. Football is a cut-throat industry so I had to look out for my best interests. That weighed heavily on my mind when I made the decision to return to Kitchee and sign professionally rather than stay in the US and play. There were opportunities in the USL (US 2nd Divison) and elsewhere but Kitchee was home and made the most sense.”

It seemed like a fairy-tale reunion, the former academy star signing professionally for his boyhood club. But it’s never that simple. 

Matt was on top of the world and raring to go. Ready to finally be a professional. The only issue was that he didn’t exactly know what his identity as a player was anymore, having been a defender more consistently than he was an attacker for almost four years.

Alex Chu and Matt couldn’t agree on his position, and so the two parties reached an impasse. Chu refused to waste an attacking talent such as Matt in defence, and Matt didn’t want to change positions again. This led to Matt featuring only twice in the remainder of the 2019/20 season, starting once at centre-half in a 2-1 loss to Lee Man Rangers.

Picture Credits: Kitchee SC

“That was the lowest I ever felt in my career, being fit and available every match but not being picked to play. That was the first time I ever experienced something like that. I thought that at the professional level you had to stick to a position, so I kept telling the staff to play me as a defender.”

The COVID-19 pandemic coincided with Matt’s footballing struggles; pathetic fallacy some would say. Nonetheless, the season was on hiatus and Matt put the past few months behind him. He had come to the decision that he would revert positions and take the advice of a coach who had known him since he was a child.

“It wasn’t the most difficult adjustment in the world. I hated defending honestly and was desperate to play. Now that I didn’t have to think about a second position at all and could focus on attacking, I went full throttle. I used what I experience as a defender to improve my attacking qualities. Utilising what I hated as a defender such as physical forwards or certain types of runs became big focuses for me. The crossing and wing-play I had practised as a full-back definitely helped me become more effective going forwards too.”

Effective? Yes. Netting in a cup-final upon the restart of the season before bagging a hat-trick in a 3-0 win against BC Rangers at the start of the 2020/2021 season. He didn’t stop there, securing himself another match ball against the side later on in the season, ending the domestic campaign with 11 goals and three assists in 24 appearances. Safe to say Matt wasn’t moving back to defence anytime soon.

This form didn’t go unnoticed, with Matt finally making his long-awaited debut for Hong Kong at the postponed 2020 World Cup Qualifiers. The result? Well, Hong Kong may not have progressed but Matt did what he does best, scoring a sublime header on his debut against Asian powerhouses Iran. 

Picture Credits: Matthew Orr

The games came thick and fast, with his first experience in the ACL on the horizon. If you can’t guess what came next, here’s a hint: it ended up in the back of the net. Despite not progressing, he started all six of their group games, netting Kitchee’s only goal in a one-all draw with Thai-Powerhouses Port FC, bringing an end to a season full of firsts.

As I mentioned earlier, Matt has gone on to do more incredible things in 2022 for club and country. His next test is the EAFF-Championships which are kicking off on the 19th of July, with Hong Kong taking on regional powerhouses Japan first. He also has a date with Singaporean duo Ikhsan and Irfan Fandi for a second time when Kitchee take on BG Pathum in the Knockout stage of the ACL in August.

Having experienced a lot in these two and a half years as a professional, the recognition has begun to come as well. As previously mentioned, his good looks in conjunction with his footballing skill-set have made him a hit with fans and he is slowly becoming the face of Kitchee and the Hong Kong National Team.

“Obviously I notice all the noise on social media, but I can tune it out. I just have to make sure I don’t let it get to me and that I keep the same work ethic that I’ve always had and I’ll keep achieving more. I’m always looking to reach the next level, I always want to challenge myself further, that’s my ambition.”

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