If there ever was an Orlando City Media Day that we were more excited for — short of the club’s first — it was today’s. Over the course of the past month and a half, leadership has been incredibly busy, to the point that no one has had a chance to breathe yet (us included). With 14 moves in all since Dec. 18, we’re going to be seeing a very different Orlando City as the Lions look to capture that elusive first playoff appearance.
CEO Alex Leitão had a wry smile on his face when asked if he’d ever been a part of this kind of whirlwind off-season. “Definitely not,” he replied. But manager Jason Kreis was on the opposite side of the coin, noting that in his first few years at Real Salt Lake they had turned over 27 of 28 players on the roster. And that to this point, the Lions have turned over 21 of 28 since his arrival in 2016.
Kreis knew that this wasn't going to be an easy rebuild.
“This was the plan we had when we [Niki and Alex] sat together just over a year ago,” Kreis said at Orlando City Stadium. “The goal in the short term was to tinker around the edges and we’d be good. This was a club that was close to the playoffs two years in a row.”
Kreis also noted that you can only do so much in the short-term.
“When you come in, you’re restricted to certain contracts and so we tinkered. But this year we went in with a clean slate and we’ve been aggressive,” he said. “We’re very happy with what we’ve done so far.”
This isn't just on the coaching side either. Will Johnson, in his second year with the club talked about the clean slate that the Lions have.
“Now we have an opportunity to re-establish the culture...that we can start fresh and there’s no rights to the guys that were already here,” he said. “We make sure that we’re trusting each other and get things done the right way.”
Kreis also let us in on the fact there’s still one more signing to come and it will be on the defensive side of the ball. But he was quick to remind us that it’s easy to get caught up in the flourish of attacking moves and forget that the club has also added two defensive midfielders, a left back, a right back, and a left center back. This team is being built all the way around, not just in the attacking third.
Once that defensive signing is made, Kreis said, “the rebuild is complete.”
“This is going to be a special year for Orlando City,” the manager said — trying not to get too excited. “Tactically and technically, we have a lot of work to do but the camaraderie is second to none.”
That camaraderie is more important than ever in a season chock full of new arrivals. And it’s going to be a battle to make the starting XI.
“This is something that’s needed to change. There are not starters, there’s one team,” Kreis said. “And they’re going to be competing every single day to decide who our starters are on the weekend. I really, really like everyone on this roster, from a character standpoint and a soccer standpoint. We’re going to be leaving players out all the time that we really believe in what they bring to this team.”
“We won't be so dependent on the first 11 and that’ll be a big part [to the season],” added Johnson, clearly on a similar page with Kreis. “We’re a lot deeper, we’re more talented, and we have guys that have been successful in the MLS. No position is safe this year. There are guys are able to take your position on any given weekend.”
Compared to years prior, these are welcome statements for anyone to hear. Depth has been an issue for Orlando City and to have the opposite issue — leaving quality on the bench — is as much of a win as anything right now. Leitão added, “We’re trying to bring the winning mentality. Winning and being in the playoffs is necessary.”
The culture shift was echoed by many of the players we had the opportunity to sit with — the change to a culture of a quality side, a winning side, is what’s needed and a first trip to the playoffs for Lions is the No. 1 goal.
When asked about coming from a perennial playoff team to a club searching for that success, newly acquired Justin Meram from the Columbus Crew cut the question off almost before it was finished being asked, saying, “that’s going to change.”
“It’s important to building the culture and to build the mentality on and off the field and we make the most out of the opportunity we have,” added Jonathan Spector, entering his second season with Orlando.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of unknowns coming into this season. What we do know is that there has been a plan in place and this is now truly Kreis’ team for the first time in his tenure and sentiments on all sides resonated positively on the expectations for 2018.
Dom Dwyer may have said it best about City’s state: “[Prior results] are in the past. This club is in the now and in the moment...you look at everything we have and the club is ready for big things.”
I have to agree with Dom. This year looks to be an exciting one on paper and one City fans can’t wait to watch unfold.