It’s still early into the whirlwind that is transfer season, but patterns are beginning to emerge in regards to Orlando City’s rumored dealings. While there must always be some caution as to the legitimacy of transfer rumors and even seemingly sealed deals can fall apart, there’s some consistency among the chatter surrounding OCSC.
From the whispers, expect some steps in the right direction — at least on paper.
The biggest theme is getting younger, something that Orlando obviously and desperately needed to do this winter. Among the eight players the brass declined options on earlier this month, five were aged 29 or older. On top of that, Kevin Alston (29) and Kaká (35) also left the club. Of the players linked to Orlando in some fashion, three have been 29 or older. That’s including Robinho, whom the club has already denied has any offer from Orlando, and Kenny Cooper who was briefly on trial. The last, Hatem Ben Arfa, is just 30 years old and could feasibly still contribute at a high level in MLS unlike the other two.
Having to lean on over-the-hill veterans doomed the Lions, relying on an inconsistently available Kaká and Antonio Nocerino, who at times just couldn’t keep up physically, to be key pieces in midfield. Jason Kreis and company don’t look like they’ll make that same mistake again, with links to potential high earners and Designated Players in their primes.
But it’s not just the age of the players that tells us that Orlando could be on the right track when it comes to roster building. The positional breakdown and skill sets of the players can provide some insight into what Kreis wants his team to look like next season. And it doesn’t look like the 4-4-2 diamond is going anywhere.
Kreis has been adamant that he wants a direct replacement for Kaká, a player that can fill the creative role that the majority of the team revolves around. With the club rumored to be in for players like Ben Arfa, Christian Cueva, Juan Fernando Quintero, and most recently Giorgian De Arrascaeta, it’s clear that Orlando City is looking for the next MLS star to build the attack around. Except for Ben Arfa, the others are all young (Cueva, the oldest of the trio, just turned 26 last week) South American talents that have European suitors. It’s a blueprint that brought Miguel Almiron to the league in 2017.
Those suitors could always throw a wrench into Orlando’s plans, but the quality level is encouraging for City fans that had to watch the team’s struggles in the final third this year. All four would require significant financial investment, but all have the ability to step in and start immediately at the top of the diamond and be among the most exciting players in MLS.
It also seems apparent that Kreis is sticking to a two-striker system. After declining options on Giles Barnes and Hadji Barry, new strikers were always a necessity. But the type of forward that the Lions have been linked to fill a role that Orlando has been sorely lacking. City has been linked to both Jo Inge Berget of Malmo FF and Stefano Pinho of Miami FC in recent weeks, who have an impressive goal tally in their respective leagues.
But the most interesting thing is that Berget and Pinho fill the similar roles for their respective clubs. Both have a history of playing wide — though Pinho’s stint on the wing with Minnesota United was less than ideal — and as the second striker in a two-striker system. It’s a void that City has tried to fill with Carlos Rivas, Barnes, and eventually Dom Dwyer this season to varying degrees of success. But in the end, Kreis never had a player that was a good fit.
With Dwyer hopefully being the man to lead the Lions’ line for years to come, he’ll need a capable partner that is not only able to finish when needed but also provide some service of their own. The key here is technical ability and the willingness to drop deep and help connect the midfield to Dwyer. It’s entirely possible that these players are being looked at for their capability to play wide, but Kreis’ history and the fact that they perform better centrally would lead to the natural assumption that the diamond is here to stay.
Gregory Sertic remains the only defensive-minded player linked to the Lions in the past few months. After failing to secure his signature last winter, reports are swirling that Orlando could be making a second pass. With a majorly disappointing spell in Marseille so far, Sertic could be looking to move stateside once again. Capable of playing both center back and in defensive midfield, it’s tough to say where Kreis sees Sertic fitting in after the end-of-season exodus, but his skill on the ball and defensive ability would be a welcome sight. That Orlando returned to Sertic even after signing would-be second choice Jonathan Spector means Kreis is still attempting to make some necessary upgrades in defense.
The lack of links to central defenders and defensive midfielders might seem concerning, but there’s still plenty of time for Kreis and Niki Budalic to make moves. Center back should be high on the list of acquisitions after the lack of consistency from every young defender in 2017. There will be options within the league, but whether or not they would be capable of starting for a playoff team is another matter. With a lack of international spots — only two have been vacated with the departures of Kaká and Leo Pereira — Orlando will need to make some domestic moves. But after Kreis’ full-on reboot of the defense last winter, the focus seems to be on the opposite end of the pitch.
The common theme regardless of position has been technical ability. For a team that struggled to maintain possession, it’s a crucial piece of a winning puzzle. Adding more pieces that can be trusted with the ball at their feet will be a welcome change from 2017.
Even with just a few rumors, the blueprint for 2018 seems clear: A Designated Player creative midfielder to replace the departed Kaká (Kreis admitted as much in our PawedCast interview with him), a more technical striker or two to accompany Dwyer, and some help along the back line, mostly under 30 and confident in possession. As the league trade window opens up in a few weeks, the picture will start to become a little clearer.