The most active of the annual MLS off-season reclamation drafts is finally here as the Re-Entry Draft starts up today with Stage 1 and ends next Thursday with Stage 2. Orlando City has plenty of holes to fill on its roster and the Re-Entry Draft is a prime opportunity to pick up some experienced pieces from around the league. This year, City has the fifth overall selection in both stages, giving the club a good shot at some of the better players available.
There is always a handful of talent available in the Re-Entry Draft. Taken last year, both Leonardo and Josh Williams were starters for teams that reached conference finals this season with the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew, respectively. Maxi Urruti — FC Dallas’ starting striker for the past two seasons — was taken in the 2015 draft. There are also inevitably players taken that don’t pan out, but the draft is a low-risk opportunity to pick up some talented players or depth pieces. The amount of talent varies from year to year; seven players were selected in the 2016 Re-Entry Draft after just four in 2015 and 11 in 2014.
There are some quirks, like most of the plethora of drafts that MLS hosts every off-season. If a player is taken in Stage 1, the club assumes their 2018 contract option. Generally, these players are available because those options are higher than their production, which is why few players, if any, are selected in Stage 1.
Players taken in Stage 2 are free to negotiate new deals with the selecting club, but there’s no guarantee that a player that is still available after Stage 1 will still be around in Stage 2. A handful of players each year either re-sign with their original clubs in the days between the stages while some will opt out or retire altogether. Players have until the beginning of each stage to opt out for any variety of reasons. So teams must weigh the risk of assuming a higher cap hit with missing out on talent, especially because clubs are far more active in Stage 2 and willing to select a player due to the contract freedom.
With Orlando City’s need to fill out almost half of the roster and lack of international spots to go around, the Re-Entry Draft is one of the best mechanisms to find domestic talent with plenty of league experience. The Lions were one of three active clubs in Stage 1 last year, selecting goalkeeper Patrick McLain before eventually shipping him off to Minnesota United with Kevin Molino. Orlando City and the San Jose Earthquakes are the only clubs that have selected players in each of the past three Re-Entry Drafts. Goalkeeper Josh Ford was selected in the second stage of 2014, followed by Kevin Alston in 2015, and McLain last year.
There are several names that should draw interest from around the league. Here are a few that could suit Orlando’s needs in 2018.
The American attacking midfielder has been a staple for the New York Red Bulls after bouncing around England for most of his career. His 2017 season was cut short due to a left knee injury that required surgery back in June, limiting Grella to just eight league appearances.
The injury should rightly raise a red flag as the midfielder turns 31 next month and it could be an issue that turns teams off even though he’s been steadily productive since 2015. His 2018 option will likely be higher than his 2017 salary of $188,250 but even still, it could be tempting given his 16 goals and 13 assists in the past two seasons. With the severity of the knee issue, it’s likely clubs would rather renegotiate for a lower number, which makes Grella a prime candidate to be taken early in Stage 2. Which may be enough reason for some teams to take the risk and eat his salary in Stage 1.
Even if Grella takes a step back in 2018, Orlando lacked dynamism and creativity off the bench. Mike has succeeded as a winger, attacking midfielder, and even forward during his time in MLS and could be the perfect piece to add quality depth to a few different areas of Jason Kreis’ side. After all, how many Orlando players had this much skill on the ball in 2017?
The Lions must do their homework regarding his knee and then ask themselves just how much he’s worth against the cap. Can they afford to pull the trigger in Stage 1?
Like Grella, Laba suffered a debilitating injury in 2017. The Argentinian midfielder tore his ACL in August, though he is expected to be available in the spring. Matias has been considered one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS during the past five years and Orlando City is thin at the six spot after letting Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco, and Dillon Powers go. Cristian Higuita is penciled in to start for the time being, but spent most of 2017 in a more advanced role. If Kreis wanted to bring in a new number six, Laba would fit the bill perfectly. But his history within the league and the fact that he just turned 26 this week will make him an enticing candidate for plenty of clubs.
There are a few drawbacks with Laba. Besides the injury, he takes up an international spot and is one of the highest-paid midfielders in the league. Matias has spent all five of his seasons in MLS with Canadian sides, so a green card is probably still a ways away. Then there’s the price tag of $885,500 in 2017 that made him more expensive than Nocerino. It’s almost a given that teams will look to take Laba in Stage 2 to avoid that massive hit on their cap, but his talent makes him a likely early selection next week.
But if the Lions are looking to lock up a proven talent within the league to man the base of Jason Kreis’ diamond, they might be better suited to take Laba instead of an unknown TAM signing from overseas to bolster the midfield.
The 24-year-old Villarreal was once considered a top prospect in MLS but for some reason never got an opportunity with the LA Galaxy. Over the six years since he signed his Homegrown contract in LA, he’s made just 68 appearances with the first team during the regular season. And when he actually got a shot, he produced.
For context: DP #10 Maxi Moralez, on a $2million contract had 5g/9a in 2520 minutes this year. We suck at playing/developing the kids. 2/2— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) November 7, 2017
But Jose was a member of the Galaxy’s Homegrown purge this off-season and finds himself at the mercy of the Re-Entry Draft. On just $105,000 in 2017, he could be worth a look in Stage 1 to a team willing to take on a potential project. Orlando could definitely utilize a player off the bench that can produce like Villarreal. With the loss of Giles Barnes and Hadji Barry, Orlando is in the market for forward depth. With Villarreal, the Lions would find a younger upgrade on Barry for just $30,000 more in salary.
Sam has definitely taken a step back in the past two years. The quick Ghanaian winger peaked in 2015 with the New York Red Bulls — when he accounted for 10 goals and eight assists — and has dropped in production every season since. He turns 34 next September, so his time in the league is limited, but he fills a niche that Orlando City has badly needed since the departure of Matias Perez Garcia.
Even as he’s gotten older, Sam has been a spark of creativity and pace down the right flank. He notched 10 assists in 2016 between the Red Bulls and D.C. United and chipped in six more this year for the worst offense in the league. With a finisher like Dom Dwyer lurking in the middle, Sam could be a potent piece off the bench to run at tired defenders in limited minutes. Sam gives potential width late in games and allows for some tactical variability even if Kreis remains married to the diamond. Too many times in 2017 the Lions tried to make tactical adjustments but didn’t have the pieces to really change the game. He can also add some goals from midfield with the ability to strike from deep:
The longtime veteran of the English Championship does not take up an international spot, which is crucial for City as it looks to fill in the missing pieces, but he might need to come down from his salary of $250,000 last year to make sense for the Lions. If he’s available in Stage 2, he could be in play for Orlando.
Scott Sutter could do with a few breaks in 2018. With both Rafael Ramos and Kevin Alston dealing with injuries for the majority of the season, Sutter was run into the ground. With Rafa’s consistent hamstring issues, there’s no telling if he’ll be available enough to be a reliable backup next year. Cato is only 25 and can play anywhere up and down the right side of the pitch, providing some versatility and attacking flair that fits what Kreis looks for in a fullback.
Even though Cato is a regular for the Trinidad and Tobago national team, he doesn’t count as an international in MLS. His $138,666 salary might be a bit rich for Orlando as one of several options at right back but perhaps his ability to play in the midfield makes it worth the money for OCSC.
There are some character questions with Cato, who was sent home from the T&T camp back in June for breaking team rules. It might lower his value around the league, but chances are some team might pull the trigger on his talent in Stage 1.
The Lions have a chance to pick up some talent for 2018, it will just take some risk assessment and savvy thinking from the front office.