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A Conversation with Orlando City Assistant General Manager Niki Budalic

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The Lions’ assistant GM weighs in on what happened during the transfer window, his Young Designated Players, the upcoming MLS Expansion Draft and more in this exclusive interview.

Image via Orlando City SC

In his first season as Orlando City’s assistant general manager, Niki Budalic has spent much of his time thousands of miles away from the City Beautiful. With Phil Rawlins serving as the team’s acting general manager in the wake of Armando Carneiro’s departure, Budalic has been the boots on the ground, searching for talent, building international relationships, and evaluating potential players.

Budalic was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule this week to talk to me about a variety of topics. And he was especially patient with me as technical difficulties ultimately forced this interview — which was supposed to be recorded for next week’s PawedCast — to become a conversation for this story instead.

Let’s get right to the interview.

My first question is…where have you been? Obviously your job has kept you on the move but where have you spent the bulk of your time this season?

Niki Budalic: I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Europe and South America. I’ve spent some time with our partners at Stoke City and Benfica this summer, looking to expand the relationships that we have there. It’s been a pretty productive year.

When you say you’ve been expanding the relationships, what exactly does that mean?

NB: With regard to Benfica and Stoke, we have a cooperation on scouting, so, for instance, if there are any players we want to get some feedback on that they may have scouted previously, we kind of collaborate that way. The club’s worked in the past with bringing players over. Rafa is a good example of a player who maybe wouldn’t have made the grade in the first team at Benfica but he’s been able to come over and get some playing time and contribute here. It’s a multifaceted partnership.

Did the mid-year coaching change from Adrian Heath to Jason Kreis force a change in strategy with regard to the summer transfer window?

NB: Obviously, having a coaching change in the middle of a season, particularly in the middle of a transfer window, is not ideal. A lot of things we had going were put on hold until Jason had a chance to fully assess the players he has now. The club made it a priority to find someone who fit the club’s philosophy and Jason was able to continue the progress that Adrian started here. We just had to give Jason time to assess the position priorities he wanted to make moving forward.

What can you tell us about the target areas in the summer transfer period and was the focus on bringing international players in or finding talent domestically?

NB: Given some of the struggles we had on defense, that was a priority. We managed to add Jose Aja, who was on loan. That was done to reinforce the back line after a period of getting acclimated. Any time you bring in a player from abroad, you want to give him time to acclimate. We did have discussions with several players from abroad, but our main focus was trading for a player in the league that didn’t work out.

How are you and Phil Rawlins splitting the responsibilities with all he has to do as the club president?

NB: We work hand in hand on a lot of the responsibilities .I’m more on the ground, at the training ground, but I collaborate with him on many different things. We basically cooperate on a majority of tasks.

We’ve had a lot of readers ask about Carlos Rivas and Bryan Rochez, and how their listed salaries fit in with the Designated Player rules, and whether there are or were any thought on buying those salaries down with allocation money in order to free up those slots. What would you tell Orlando City fans about that?

NB: A lot of that is the transfer fees. The full budget hits on those players are not just the salary. It includes the transfer fees which are amortized across the length of the contracts. That puts them in the DP category. There is some flexibility in changing the designation and that’s something that will be considered moving forward.

We recently got details on this year’s MLS Expansion Draft. Are the discussions already ongoing about who will be exposed and who the club will protect, or is it too soon for that?

NB: Those conversations are continuous. We’ve been considering the Expansion Draft at the end of the year from as early as May or June. Those decisions won’t be finalized until November or December, especially as we plan to bring in players this off-season. It’s in our thoughts and in our plans.

With regard to the Expansion Draft, there is a lot of speculation about players with higher salaries being moved. Guys like Brek Shea, Antonio Nocerino, and David Mateos make quite a bit of money. How much does that factor into the club’s decision making?

NB: We’re always analyzing and assessing the squad. Clearly the salaries are a factor but more important than that I think is trying to get a good handle on the qualities of the playing staff we have now. We all have opinions but with Jason coming in he made it clear that every player was starting from scratch. He would have no biases and would work with players through the end of the season and we would go from there. For a lot of these players, it’s about who wants to buy in to that philosophy and who doesn’t. A lot of the decisions area really going to come down to the players themselves.

Are there already players you’ve got your eye on for the winter transfer window?

NB: We have an idea of areas we’d like to strengthen in the off-season, but until Jason can really finalize his opinion on those players we’ll hold off.

Was there an opportunity to get the DP tag taken off of Bryan Rochez with the loan deal and to bring in a player to fill that slot to help the club to finish 2016 strong?

NB: Us loaning him to Real Espana wasn’t to open up the DP slot. It was to get him valuable playing time and to get him going in a positive direction. Injuries in the preseason really set him back at the start of the year and he got some games but he just wasn’t going in the right direction at OCB. We thought that putting him in an environment where he was comfortable would help start his career.

What have you heard from Real Espana about Rochez?

NB: They’ve been pleased with him thus far. I think he had some struggles with fitness at first but he has been playing recently and has scored a few goals. He’s happy. I think that’s the most important thing and we hope he’ll continue to progress.

How far along is the search for the permanent GM and are you in the conversation to step into that role?

NB: I guess you’d have to ask Phil that question. We’ve had some feedback on my progress but there’s been no decisions made.