In 2014, during Orlando City’s final USL season, the club named Adrian Heath its head coach and hired Paul McDonough to be general manager. The pair had a three-year plan to win MLS Cup, which included making the playoffs in the first year with a crop of talented young players. That plan quickly dissolved but has been successfully implemented by the team visiting this weekend.
Since the LA Galaxy acquired David Beckham in 2007 and the Designated Player Rule was established, many teams have brought in elderly stars in an attempt to draw ticket sales and lead the team. That strategy has changed, mainly since Toronto FC brought Sebastian Giovinco into the league in 2015, something Orlando City was attempting to do a year earlier.
Orlando City did have a former European star on its roster with 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká, a friend of owner Flávio Augusto da Silva and CEO Alex Leitão. But other than that, McDonough focused on bringing in good young talent to fill out the roster. U.S. youth internationals Tommy Redding and Tyler Turner were signed and played with the first team in 2014. So too was Portuguese youth international Rafael Ramos.
While Kaká took up a DP spot as the league’s highest-paid player, the other two available spots went to a pair of Young Designated Players — Carlos Rivas, a speedy striker from Colombia, and Bryan Rochez, a strong striker from Honduras. McDonough filled out the rest of the side with young international players like Cristian Higuita and Harrison Heath, combined with MLS experience from Tally Hall, Aurélien Collin, Amobi Okugo, and Brek Shea.
Orlando City failed to make the postseason in 2015, though the team made an impressive late run to come within one spot and five points from clinching the coveted sixth position. The Lions did finish above fellow expansion side, New York City FC.
Following the 2015 MLS season, Orlando City hired the former general director of S.L. Benfica’s academy, Armando Carneiro, to be the club’s chief soccer officer. Placed above McDonough, everyone knew the general manager’s time was nearly up. Surely enough, McDonough left the club about a month later and joined the new expansion outfit, Atlanta United FC.
In Atlanta, McDonough continued to pursue what he began in Orlando, building a strong young team that could compete early. He used a similar pattern of roster building, signing a Designated Player and a pair of Young Designated Players. The DP was 23-year-old Venezuelan Josef Martinez from Torino, as well as young DPs Miguel Almirón and Héctor Villalba. Like he did with Orlando City, the remainder of the side was completed with young international players like Yamil Asad, and MLS experience from Brad Guzan, Bobby Boswell, Jeff Larentowicz, and Michael Parkhurst.
While Orlando City continued to drop down the table each season, using older players like Antonio Nocerino and Júlio Baptista, McDonough achieved in Atlanta what he had attempted two years prior in Orlando, making the playoffs in an expansion season. The new southern-based team finished six spots and 16 points ahead of the Lions in its first season.
In 2018, Head Coach Jason Kreis and General Manager Niki Budalic finally have a team that’s all theirs and appears to be on the rise. After a slow start to the season, the Lions have caught fire and won their last six games as they look to reach the postseason for the first time, three years after they had initially planned. Rather than being built around 35-year-old former European stars, the team is built around younger foreign talent, such as Josúe Colmán and Yoshi Yotún, and proven MLS experience from Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan, and Justin Meram.
This weekend, Atlanta United enters Orlando City Stadium sitting on top of the Eastern Conference, but will face a red-hot team in Orlando City that sits third, just three points back and with a game in hand. For McDonough, it will be another chance to show Orlando City what it missed when the front office drove him out of the club. For the Lions, it will be an opportunity to show they’re for real and are ready to qualify for the MLS postseason for the first time in club history.