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On the Strange Timing of Niki Budalic’s Departure

Was it the wrong time to make the right decision?

Image courtesy of Orlando City SC.

As of last Monday, Niki Budalic is no longer the general manager of soccer operations for Orlando City SC. In its simplest form, this is fine, probably even a good thing. The Lions had just suffered through their worst ever MLS campaign with a largely overhauled roster expected to at least make the playoffs, which Budalic had a very large hand in building. After the mid-season hiring of James O’Connor to replace the fired Jason Kreis did not result in a turnaround in form, despite statements that the new coach was expected to win with the current crop of players, the bell tolled on Budalic’s time in Orlando.

Realistically, this was almost certainly the right decision. While Budalic was key in acquiring Dom Dwyer and Yoshi Yotún, the best parts of the current roster, it is a roster that has failed to be more than the sum of its parts. Each Orlando City MLS campaign has also been worse than the last, something that coaching changes and roster overhaul have been unable to remedy. Clearly it was time to attempt to find a solution elsewhere, and the man in charge of all soccer-related options was the next logical step in trying to solve the puzzle of finally making the playoffs. What is, or at least seems, less logical is the timing of Budalic’s release.

As mentioned earlier, Budalic was let go last Monday, promptly in the thick of when MLS teams are required to announce their off-season roster decisions. On a day when Lions fans were eagerly waiting to see which players would stay and which would go, we were instead given the rather surprising news of Budalic’s departure. With OCSC’s player decisions being announced the next day, it certainly raises some interesting questions about how much input the now former GM had on those roster decisions.

It’s safe to assume that Head Coach James O’Connor had a large amount of say in the process, but was the club leadership taking Budalic’s advice into account and building a roster according to his recommendations only to fire him? If that is the case, did they stay true to whatever input Budalic had or were most of the decisions up to O’Connor and Alex Leitao?

Hopefully owner Flavio Augusto da Silva and Leitao had decided to part with Budalic in advance of beginning to make roster decisions, but if so then why wait so long to announce the move? It doesn’t necessarily add up, and seems to point toward the decision being made much closer to the roster moves announcement, which then calls into question the decision-making process about those moves. Either way, whatever new GM is hired will be walking into a club with:

  1. A roster that he or she had no say in building, and
  2. A coach that they had no say in hiring.

Granted, this is something that happens all over the league whenever a new GM is brought on board, but the specific timing of Budalic’s release means that there was never even a chance of being able to hire a new GM before making roster decisions.

Around roughly early to mid August it was pretty clear that the team wasn’t going to be able to get its act together and make the playoffs. If the intention was always to send Budalic packing then at that point it almost certainly would have made more sense to give him the ax and start the search for a new GM. There would have been roughly three months to find and hire a replacement in time for them to have their say on any off-season decisions. Maybe the club wouldn’t have been able to find someone but there at least would have been a chance. If the intention wasn’t always to fire Budalic then it’s worth wondering what caused the decision to be made at the time it was.

It’s not like the Lions crashed out of the playoffs the week before, prompting angry questions and soul searching. Orlando’s last game was over a month ago at the time of the firing, plenty of time for decisions to be made about whether or not Budalic should stay or go. So, while this is pure speculation, it seems more likely that something much closer to the announcement spurred the decision. What that could be is anyone’s guess and I’m not in the business of speculating about such things but it just seems strange.

In the end, any number of things about Niki’s departure from Orlando are possible, including the availability of a potential replacement. While I won’t speculate on when the decision was made or what the catalyst for that decision was, I certainly think it’s worth acknowledging the very odd timing of the move being announced, as well as the questions it raises. Given the failures of the team during his tenure it was almost certainly the right choice to make and hopefully it’s one that will help Orlando City move toward having more success in MLS. It’s just the timing of that choice that bugs me.