When Orlando City set out on building its first MLS roster almost one year ago, the club was sure that the plan they had put together would be good enough to have them playing into December for the MLS Cup.
Unfortunately, that plan didn't pan out, and the Lions found themselves on the outside looking in at the MLS Cup playoff field, failing to "defy expectations" and become the rare expansion team to make the playoffs in their first season.
So where do the Lions go from here?
This off-season, we've already looked at four moves the club needs to look into making this season to retool for 2016.
Surely, as we've already seen for basically the past year, Orlando City is going to be linked with a lot of big-named players this winter. Most of those rumors -- probably all of those rumors -- will be only fluff, no fact. And that makes it worth asking: is this roster, with a few important tweaks, good enough to compete and secure a playoff spot in 2016, or are the Lions still another big splash signing away from achieving league success?
Recent MLS trends suggest that bringing in another star isn't going to transform Orlando City into the best team in the league over night. Looking at the remaining MLS playoff teams, you're not going to find teams with star power on it -- Kaká, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Sebastian Giovinco, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard and Giovani Dos Santo are all watching the playoffs from home (if they're actually watching).
Bringing in an outside star can certainly help the team, but it doesn't guarantee anything.
Orlando City's biggest weakness in 2015 might have been its lack of MLS experience, which you can argue goes hand in hand with the team's lack of depth this season.
"We need to bring some MLS experience in, even if it's only squad players," Head Coach Adrian Heath said in an Orlando Sentinel Q&A. "Doesn't necessarily have to be someone who is going to go straight into our first team, but I think there's a bit of both. We need to bring a couple [international] players in, but we certainly need to bring the MLS types, the people who know this league. Who are invaluable in this league. Invaluable."
So with that in mind, is the team better off making a big splash in MLS if they choose to go that route? There are plenty of designated player-quality players in MLS, with the kind experience that can be invaluable to the club, as Heath put it.
Which players specifically fit this bill? We look at some of the top names that could fit in the club, and who could be on the move this winter.
Dax McCarty, midfielder, New York Red Bulls
McCarty is one of those players that make too much sense to not be playing in purple at some point in his career. Orlando City made a big, although unsuccessful, push for the defensive midfielder last winter, and team insider Paul Tenorio thinks they could make another run at the Winter Park native this off-season.
How would this even work with Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita shining as two of the club's best players in the defensive midfield in 2015? As Tenorio writes, the Lions could shift to a 4-3-2-1 to accommodate the three defensive midfielder, with Kaká and Kevin Molino playing underneath Cyle Larin up top.
However, why would New York trade their captain after a Supporters' Shield-winning season, and a potential trip to MLS Cup Final? They probably won't, but never say never.
Omar Gonzalez, defender, LA Galaxy
LA's got some big decisions to make this winter. Does Steven Gerrard stay or go back to Liverpool as a coach or something as rumored? Does Gyasi Zardes move to Europe? Maybe most importantly, what happens to Omar Gonzalez? LA bought down his contract with Targeted Allocation Money to clear a DP spot for Dos Santos. Will the club have enough/be willing to buy him down again in 2016, or could Gonzalez be on the move?
European interest has been following him, too, and it probably wouldn't be hard to move him elsewhere if the Galaxy signaled they were ready to move on.
As for how Orlando fits into this picture, Omar had a down year in 2015 after featuring for the USMNT in the World Cup in Brazil. In Orlando, he'd star alongside fellow National Teamer Brek Shea, and pair up with Aurelien Collin at center back, creating arguably one of the best pairings in the league. Orlando City could probably afford to take on his salary with all of their TAM still in hand, and a little extra allocation from MLS for missing out on the playoffs.
It'd be a great fit, but who knows if there's even a chance of this happening.
Dom Dwyer, forward, Sporting KC
HA! I just like to see the look on KC fans' faces when I bring his name up. Not happening, Cyle Larin is great.
Brad Davis, midfielder, Houston Dynamo
The 34-year-old isn't the most attractive name, but it's a name that would draw some eyes among USMNT fans. Davis, according to reports, could be on the move this winter, and the Houston Chronicle specifically named Sporting KC as the likely destination.
The left-footed wizard scored four goals and assisted on nine this season for Houston, and brings a ton of MLS experience to the squad in place of Carlos Rivas on the left wing.
I'll put the chances of this move happening at zero percent.
* * *
Should Orlando City make a big splash this winter? What MLS name do you think the club should target? Comment below!