Veteran Brazilian striker Julio Baptista joined Orlando City shortly after the start of the 2016 season. The 35-year-old (then age 34) signed on March 23 after training with the club for about a month. The São Paulo native and former teammate of Kaká with Real Madrid and the Brazilian national team has a long history with Orlando City’s captain and brought a wealth of top flight experience to the Lions, who were desperate to find someone who could provide minutes at striker and depth behind Cyle Larin.
“The Beast” made his MLS debut at Philadelphia on April 8, playing just one minute in stoppage time in a 2-1 loss. Nine days later, Baptista got his first start for Orlando City, earning a penalty early in the game in a 2-2 home draw against the New England Revolution that we like to call the “Unhandball Game” around The Mane Land offices. He notched his first assist for the Lions against the New York Red Bulls on April 24, in just his second MLS start, and scored his first goal with Orlando on May 29 at New York City FC.
Throughout the 2016 season, Baptista appeared in more than two thirds of Orlando City’s matches, starting a handful, and provided an offensive threat and became a potential game changer every time he subbed on in the second half.
La Bestia played 729 minutes across 23 games (five starts) for the Lions in 2016. His six goals ranked fourth on the club and his three assists tied for fourth with Rafael Ramos, Luke Boden, and Larin. He was tied for fifth on the team in shots (27) and shots on goal (9) with both Brek Shea and Seb Hines. Baptista committed only six fouls while drawing 22 and drew only one yellow card. He was also only offside once this season, showing his awareness despite playing with a new group of teammates.
Baptista’s 0.74 goals per 90 minutes was easily the best among Orlando City players and fifth in the entire league (minimum 100 minutes played). He ranked just behind Bradley Wright-Phillips (0.78) and ahead of David Villa (0.72). That’s remarkable when you consider that he wasn’t getting regular playing time and it was his first tour of Major League Soccer.
Completing 77% of his passes, Baptista was more accurate than Orlando City’s other main strikers, Larin (73.4%) and Carlos Rivas (71.4%), and was just about dead even with rookie Hadji Barry (77.2%), who mostly played an attacking right wing position. If there was a knock on his game, it was that he averaged just 0.4 key passes per match. He also didn’t contribute much defensively, averaging just 0.3 tackles, 0.3 interceptions and 0.1 clearances per match, although that’s not atypical of Orlando’s strikers. One of his best attributes that set him apart from other Lions was his ability to do this:
When looking for a best game for Baptista, one must weigh his contributions as a starter against the more numerous appearances he made as a substitute. He was at his best in the latter role, and I think his best performance of the season came at New York City FC on May 29, when he entered in the 59th minute and changed the course of the match.
Here’s what I wrote about his performance that day in our player grades post, when he earned himself a 7.5 rating for the match:
Changed the dynamic by coming into the center and moving Molino to the right. Gave his team a lifeline with his first MLS goal, taking an extra touch in the box but that was OK because the NYCFC defense allowed it. Then he turned and powered a shot into the left corner that may have taken a slight deflection off the defender. Helped as a coach on the field, giving instructions to his defensive midfielders to come up and close space, and also worked well with both Molino and Rivas.
2016 Final Rating
The Beast gets a composite grade of 7 from The Mane Land staff for his first season in Orlando. Baptista came in and changed games off the bench with his experience, scoring prowess, and ability to be an on-field leader. He was able to make a few spot starts as well, helping provide much-needed depth for the club. Overall, his first season in MLS was a solid one and having him on the bench was a luxury for Orlando City in 2016.
It’s completely up to Jason Kreis and Orlando City whether Baptista is back with the club next season. The Brazilian has expressed a desire to continue his playing career and seems content with the role he played for the Lions this past season. As he told the Orlando Sentinel just a few weeks ago:
"My plan at the moment [is,] I stay here," Baptista said. "But, I need to talk with the club. I think the club will tell me what it wants of me. I just [have to] wait. I've played on good teams with players 34, 35, 36 and the most important thing is the mentality.
Baptista requires a valuable international slot, but his salary of $90,000 doesn’t make him cost prohibitive. I’d honestly have to put his return at 50/50 at this point. The team may wish to find a younger striker who can spell Larin more often, although it may be difficult to replace Baptista’s productivity. If he stays, and improves during his second go-round through MLS, Baptista could indeed be quite the beast for the Lions in 2017.