With only five games left in the season, it’s natural for one eye to start looking toward the impending off-season. Change is in the air in Orlando with several exits expected either in late November when contract options are officially accepted or declined or over the winter when the transfer windows open back up.
For players on the fringes of the current roster, the final five games of the season could prove to be their last attempt to impress and earn a roster spot amid all the potential turnover. In a salary-capped league, there’s value in every dollar spent on salaries and those that are out-earning their production could also be on the chopping block. For Antonio Nocerino, Giles Barnes, and Seb Hines, it could be their last few weeks in purple unless a few dominoes fall the right way. Nocerino and Hines have team options coming up at the end of the year. Barnes’ contract situation isn’t as clear-cut, but a role player among the team’s highest earners is never ideal.
Nocerino and Barnes are in similar circumstances. Combined, they earn $1,631,250 according to the MLS Players’ Union — the two highest earners on the roster after Kaká as of April 15 — and all of that is currently being applied to the team’s salary assets (when combining their cap hits plus allocation money spent to get them below DP level) after the Designated Player tag was pulled off Barnes in favor of Yoshimar Yotun. That’s a lot of coin that could potentially be better spent.
General Manager Niki Budalic and company have proven that they can target and sign true impact players on cheaper deals. For less than that same combined sum, Budalic brought in Scott Sutter, Jonathan Spector, Will Johnson, and Donny Toia — four players that have been consistent starters in 2017 and immediately improved the roster. With the salary cap stressing value for every dollar, Barnes and Nocerino can’t provide that. For all of their positives that they bring to the pitch, they aren’t one of the top three players on the team or even top five. If the front office can go out and sign two or potentially three Spector-level players for around that same salary figure, what’s stopping them?
Another wrench in the futures of the Jamaican and Italian internationals is the limited amount of TAM to go around. Yotun’s contract is low enough that the Peruvian will reportedly be TAM eligible in 2018 and the Lions have already committed a good chunk of it to acquire Dom Dwyer. Yoshi has already proven he can have a much greater impact at an equivalent salary level and that’s what Noce and Giles have to live up to. They aren’t doing that.
So the question isn’t are they coming back on their current salaries, it’s are they coming back at all, and if so at what cost? Barnes has the best chance to come back on a reduced deal (if 2018 isn’t already guaranteed) thanks to his versatility and the need for a player with his skill set and a lack of quality depth at both striker and attacking midfield. In the final run in, it may be less about whether he deserves a roster spot and more about what his worth is. Nocerino has been the No. 1 option for Kreis at a crowded position, but there are signs that that notion is starting to change. In Orlando’s 2-1 victory over D.C. United, it was Cristian Higuita at the base of the diamond with the Italian in one of the more forward midfield roles.
Even with Will Johnson suspended indefinitely and his status with the team unknown, there’s still quite a bit of competition in central midfield. Newcomers Yotun and Dillon Powers have proven in MLS that they are capable of playing a box-to-box role that Antonio hasn’t proven to be capable of. Youngster Richie Laryea has also started to come on strong this year. For Noce to prove that he deserves to be here in 2018, he’ll not only need to take a pay cut, he’ll need to prove that $400,000-600,000 is worth it over a new signing. His ability to fill in for several midfield positions helps, but with Higuita, Servando Carrasco, Tony Rocha, and the other central midfielders available, is he a necessity anymore? He has five games to prove it.
Hines’ situation is an interesting one and slightly different from the other two. The Englishman already took a pay cut to return to the Lions and his deal is so team-friendly that the club has options after every season. His future in MLS looked bleak after being relegated to Orlando City B for 15 appearances after yet another knee surgery to begin the year. But Hines put the work in and dominated with OCB, contributing to eight clean sheets.
While young center backs Jose Aja, Tommy Redding, and Leo Pereira struggled to impress in MLS, Hines was thriving. And with Spector not fully fit and Aja suspended, it was Seb that was called into action against D.C. United with Pereira a healthy scratch. When Orlando’s center back depth looked like a strength early in the year, without Spector involved there has been a drastic drop off and lack of veteran leadership.
Hines is not overpaid like Nocerino and Barnes. His $129,996 salary is in line with other MLS veterans toward the end of the bench and having him on the roster does not break the bank or limit other signings. While another steady center back is a necessity for Orlando in the winter, it might be down to Seb’s experience or Pereira’s upside as the fifth center back on the depth chart. Hines might get another chance as soon as this weekend to prove he’s still capable of performing in this league. He’s got five games left to make his mark.
It’s getting down to the wire for the Lions on the roster bubble. With just five games left to impress, they have to make every minute count.