We’re barely three days into MLS’s Secondary Transfer Window and the rumors are already flying around Orlando City. They have been for months now, but the newest rumors have a weight of realism; the newest rumors can become reality in a matter of days. The consequences that these new players will bring with them to Orlando, both positive and negative, will have a major impact on whether or not City can get above the red line and into the playoffs in its second MLS season. But if the front office continues with the current trajectory when it comes to acquisitions, it may be an uphill battle for the rest of the season.
The philosophy of the club has always been to find and develop young talent and that core structure of the roster has never been an issue. It’s the latest trend in finding veterans to complement the youth in the squad that has provided troubling results. Orlando’s main tactic has seemingly been to throw money at experienced players in order to convince them.
Money was reportedly the big issue in the Antonio Nocerino transfer saga as Orlando attempted to trump D.C. United, and we’ve seen huge sums (for MLS standards) given to big-name signings. When Orlando City first entered MLS, it was Aurélien Collin ($500,000) and Amobi Okugo ($275,000) who were supposed to be the spine of the expansion season. Brek Shea ($550,000) was supposed to be an ever-present threat as an attacking fullback. David Mateos ($420,000) and Nocerino ($600,000) were going to use their experience at the top clubs in Europe to tear MLS apart.
But Collin and Okugo couldn’t hold starting jobs and were shipped out. Mateos hasn’t been able to lock down a starting role either and Nocerino has been relegated to the end of the bench in barely three months with the club. Shea, the only consistent starter of the lot, has been inconsistent at best and rumors have started popping up about him leaving Orlando City. And leaving isn’t exactly easy.
In a salary-capped league like MLS, these large contracts have serious ramifications. Even with the influx of allocation money in the last year, it’s difficult to move on from these big money deals. In Okugo’s case, Orlando agreed to take on some of his contract responsibilities when he was traded to Sporting Kansas City in July of last year. Collin only fetched a fourth-round draft pick on his way to the New York Red Bulls. An under-performing player on a bad contract is nearly worthless in MLS and, as history is beginning to show, Orlando has had a lot of bad contracts in a short amount of time. They’re not necessarily bad players, but paying them more than they’re worth can be a self-inflicted handicap in this league. Chances are if Shea moves on to another MLS team, the return will be minimal.
The frustrating thing is that Orlando has proven time and again that team doesn’t need to pay players large wages to get an impact on the pitch.
Kevin Molino has had a blistering start to the 2016 season and he only has a $110,000 base salary. Darwin Cerén — who already got a raise this year — is still only making $150,000. Both are key pieces in Orlando’s starting lineup and have proven to be good MLS players. In fact, none of the players that have consistently performed for the Lions are making more than $200,000 as a base salary. With Adrian Winter’s departure last weekend, that number has actually dropped to $150,000. That’s good news if you’re into the "Moneyball" approach to building a roster. Orlando City may not exactly be using advanced metrics and analytics to gain an advantage, but they do seem to have something going for them.
Orlando’s scouting team has already proven that they have an eye for young talent. The aforementioned Molino and Cerén, along with Cristian Higuita and Tommy Redding, are all key cogs in the purple machine brought in without the SuperDraft. The Lions can’t bank on an academy star like Redding to appear this summer, but they can try and strike gold with another hidden gem. South America, Central America, and the Caribbean have always provided a wealth of talent to the soccer world for a cut-rate price.
Orlando’s partner club, SL Benfica, makes their living off signing and developing South Americans. In the club’s release about their partnership, the first listed benefit is: "Sharing evaluations regarding professional and youth soccer players." With Benfica’s vast resources already committed to South America and Orlando’s ties to Central America and the Caribbean, the groundwork is there to find the next cheap starter.
Cerén started on $66,000 per year in MLS and he was already El Salvador’s captain. Higuita was on even less at $60,000 and he had been scouted by European clubs. Put that in perspective with the looming rumor of Dionatan Teixeira’s impending signing, who is reportedly earning £5,000 a week (over $330,000 per year). Even if Teixeira is willing to cut his wages in half, he would be the highest-paid center back after Mateos. Meanwhile, the Lions are linked to the younger, Uruguayan prospect José Aja, who at the very least would be cheaper. Both are unproven in MLS, but one is a greater risk to the salary cap.
Orlando City doesn’t have to stop signing big names, either, they just have to be in the right situation. It seems that Orlando can succeed on either end of the spectrum; Kaká, even through his injuries, has been a solid Designated Player and representative of the club. On the other end, Júlio Baptista is on a dirt-cheap contract ($90,000) and providing quality minutes from the bench. These are the types of big-name players that can augment their young core: role players and proven stars. Orlando has struggled to hit on anything in between.
If the Lions can utilize the tools available to them and stick to the lower-earning quality to the south, like they have done for years, they can find success in circumventing their salary struggles.