The desire to challenge himself at a higher level has always been part of who Matt Orr is. Two months after joining Guangxi Pingguo Haliao, Orr talks about adapting to China League One and what lessons he is trying to learn from Erling Haaland.
When Hong Kong fans last heard from Matt Orr, the striker had just forced his way out of Kitchee on the eve of their Round of 16 AFC Champions league match in August. The Bluewaves, clearly dissatisfied with the manner in which Orr left, made the unusual step of publicizing the fact that he had submitted transfer requests on three separate occasions to the club. Ken Ng, the president of Kitchee, went a step further and claimed that Orr had behaved like “a wife in a loveless marriage.”
Two months after joining China League One side Guangxi Pingguo Haliao, Orr has no regrets about the move. Though he did not address the comments of his former employers, he told Chinese publication Sina recently that leaving the Hong Kong Premier League was something that was necessary for his career.
“The standard of football in Hong Kong is not high and staying there would’ve limited my ability to develop and improve” he admitted. “I started to have the idea of playing in the mainland leagues two years ago, but the situation over the past two years hasn’t been good. A lot of teams have cut their budgets so it’s harder to come up here and play. But when Guangxi asked me if I was interested, I didn’t think too long about it. I just wanted to go over there and prove myself.
“As for which team to join, it really didn’t matter to me. Regardless of whether it was a Chinese Super League club or League One club, it would’ve been a step up for my career.”
The 25-year-old’s decision was not a surprise to those who knew about his ambitions. In June, Orr had given an interview to The Window podcast in which he declared that he would “push for that next step.” He declined to give a timeframe for that “push” at the time but stressed that his dream was to play at the highest level possible in Asia.
Orr originally left Hong Kong when he was 15 after a conversation with his parents about his dream of playing professional football. Even then, he had felt that the standard local competition was – in his words – “too easy” and was encouraged by his parents to go abroad.
He would eventually enroll at the IMG Academy, an elite boarding school in Florida with athletic facilities the likes of which are virtually unmatched around the world. It was a life altering experience for Orr, who would later receive NCAA Division 1 scholarships to play at San Francisco and Syracuse, before majoring in economics and returning to Hong Kong in late 2019, a month before the pandemic.
“When I came to America, it was an eye-opener because the level was really high. I was no longer treated as a special player anymore and I realized that I needed to work harder to improve myself to become a professional,” he recalled. “In college, it’s ruthless. The college athlete space is ruthless. Everyone wants to be a professional and [you might be friends] off the pitch, but on the pitch, it’s pretty cutthroat.
“The first week of preseason, everyone’s trying to kill each other. I feel like they don’t have that hungry mentality as a youth footballer in Hong Kong because it’s no one’s primary thought to be a professional footballer. With such a successful business city, people are more focused on their education and all of that stuff. I’m happy I got to the US early and learnt the mentality aspect of football that is really required.”
After graduating from Syracuse, Orr considered a career in the American lower divisions before deciding to return to Kitchee where he had played as an academy player. The move has been largely successful for the Hong Kong international as he has won two league titles, one Sapling Cup and experienced Champions League football for the first time.
The level of competition within the dressing room of Kitchee is a continuation of Orr’s experiences in college. He had played a striker through his formative years, but moved to centre back after his coach at San Francisco convinced him that he could see more playing time at that position. Orr eventually earned himself a starting role as Kitchee’s centre forward during the first half of the 2020-21 season before the arrival of Dejan Damjanović forced Orr to left wing.
The Montenegrin legend has had a positive impact on Orr and the younger player credits Demjanović with mentoring him on how to improve himself.
“When I was younger, I used to go for power all the time,” said Orr, when describing how he would shoot the ball. “But I’ve worked closely with [Damjanović] for over a year-and-a-half to develop my game to being more about placement and finding the bottom corners. That’s what world class strikers do.”
Guangxi are currently mired in a relegation battle. The club sit only four points above the drop zone with 10 matches to go in the season.
Orr has struggled to produce on the pitch despite playing in his more natural position of centre forward. In 360 minutes, he has contributed a solitary assist but has yet to find the back of the net for Guangxi.
“Anyone who experiences new surroundings will need time to settle and, not to mention, it’s difficult for professional players to play a congested schedule,” he said, from Tangshan where the club will play the final leg of the season. “It’s been two months since I came here and my body is slowly adjusting. But I feel I’ve adapted well and I’m ready to go.
“After we played a few friendlies in Pingguo and Nanning, we entered the centralized bubble in Tangshan on the 23rd. The new coach has put us through a lot of fitness training and gradually passed his tactical ideas to the team. We all know that we have to play well at this stage if we want to stay up this year.”
The difficulty of playing at this level was something that Orr had done his homework on prior to joining Guangxi. He had spoken at length with the club’s previous coach, Óscar Céspedes, who recruited him to the club. Fellow Hong Kong internationals Vas Nuñez and Andy Russell, whom Orr counts as mates, also warned him about what to expect in the mainland.
“They all said that the standard was higher here than in Hong Kong,” he said. “The quality of the players is better, it’s more competitive, but you can improve faster. I’ve seen that. Compared to the Hong Kong Premier League, League One is faster, there’s more intensity and the level is good, which is what I expected. The games are usually close because there’s not much that separates the two sides, which is good for the players.”
Although both he and the club are struggling at the moment, Orr firmly believes that the goals will come.
“I’m a striker and I want to score in every match because that’s my job. But all strikers hit a rough patch and maybe, my time hasn’t come yet,” he said, reflecting on his play thus far. “To be honest, what’s important to me is the success of the team. When I’m not scoring, there are other things I can do to help the team.
“I’m patient and I’m confident in myself. The goals will come sooner or later, and after I get the first one, they’ll come one after another.”
Orr did not hide the fact that he has ambitions beyond China League One, however, he remains focused on the present.
“My goal is to play in the CSL, but I know that the most important thing now is to do my job, to play well for Guangxi in every game, to score goals, to win, and hopefully go to the CSL in the future,” he reaffirmed.
Barely three years into his career, and with only 10 international caps under his belt, Orr has already made a name for himself – as a model. Pictures of the six-foot-two blonde have appeared in the Hong Kong editions of Harper’s Bazaar, MR, and Esquire, and he has appeared in adverts for various products, including the apparel brand Columbia. Both mainland and Hong Kong news outlets have labelled Orr as the ‘Hong Kong Cristiano‘ because of his looks, but it’s a moniker that the striker would rather distance himself from.
“Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world so it’s unrealistic for me to compare myself to him,” he responded, sheepishly. “Of course, if someone wants to call me that, it’s their opinion and I can’t stop them. But I don’t give it much thought.
“I appreciate that everyone has an opinion about me, but I don’t care, personally. It doesn’t really affect me if people say I’m handsome. I have to stay humble and be respectful and nice towards everyone.”
Getting back on the pitch, Orr admitted that although Liverpool are his favourite club, the player who he tries to learn the most from is Manchester City striker Erling Haaland.
“In my spare time, I watch the leagues overseas. Especially on the weekends, I’ll watch five or six hours of matches to see how different strikers play and learn from them,” Orr said. “The one I admire the most is Haaland because he scores every match and, like me, he’s also left-footed, he’s strong and he’s tall. I also watch his interviews and follow what he does off the pitch. He’s special.”
Asked what specifically he has learned from Haaland, Orr quickly pointed to the Norwegian striker’s diet. It is a topic that has interested Orr ever since he went to the US and learned about what foods to eat and how best to recover.
“I eat a relatively health diet with lots of fruit, meat and carbohydrates,” he proudly stated. “My mum only cooked healthy food growing up. I don’t drink fruit juice or carbonated drinks; Only water and sports drinks. The first thing I do when I get up is have a glass of lemonade. I also don’t eat fast or fried food.
“Recently, Haaland did an interview where he talked about what he eats every day. A lot of people will say they eat a lot of vegetables, but Haaland says he only eats meat. He said that he starts his day with meat at breakfast, which I thought was strange but interesting.
“I’ve watched a lot of his interviews and listened carefully to every word. Even though he’s a top player, he still feels that he’s not good enough and wants to get better. I respect him for that.”
After every training session, Orr revealed that he spends at least 15 minutes working alone on his shooting. “I know where I need to improve and I work on it every day,” he said. “The most important thing for a striker is to be able to seize opportunities when they arise and, in that respect, I have to be more polished. I want to become a more well-rounded player.”
Like many Hong Kongers, Orr is looking forward to the 2023 Asian Cup, which could be postponed until January 2024. The sense of achievement in simply qualifying for Asian football’s biggest tournament after 54 years is not lost on the striker.
“It’s exciting to be a part of the Asian Cup and it’s a historic achievement for us as players. When the time comes, we’ll put our best foot forward. The rest of Asia won’t rate us but our attitude will be to go into every game without any pressure and just try to enjoy it.”