In the months between now and the 2020 MLS season Orlando City will continue a rebuild that started last off-season. That time period saw the Lions add notable contributors like Nani, Robin Jansson, Sebas Mendez, and the recently re-signed Ruan. After Thursday’s roster decisions, the Lions will need a similar influx of key contributors prior to the 2020 season if they are finally going to get over the hump and reach the postseason, because there are new gaps that must be filled.
The most glaring need obviously is at the head coach position, because James O’Connor has yet to be replaced. If Oscar Pareja was waiting for the Liga MX season to end, well, we shouldn’t have long to wait too much longer if he’s going to be the guy. If Pareja isn’t taking the job, well…things are a bit less clear.
In the meantime, Luiz Muzzi and Ricardo Moreira will need to identify and land several players to complete the team’s overhaul. There are a few places the team must shore up and these are the ones I see as the most important — and potentially difficult — players to replace.
I understand why the club parted ways with Sané. His salary was a prohibitive factor in bringing him back and it’s unlikely he’d want to take a pay cut of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sané did something in 2019 that he had been unable to do since being acquired in February of 2018 — he stayed healthy, although it took a few games at the start of the year to get there.
Once healthy and paired with a competent partner in Jansson, Sané was a revelation. He won nearly everything in the air, anticipated the play well, worked in concert with his central defense partner, and helped turn around a historically bad defense into a pretty good one. It took five years for Orlando City to have a solid and consistent center back pairing and now the club will shake things up. Finding a partner for Jansson has to be the highest priority and the club will need someone who is as athletic and mobile as (a healthy) Sané. I expect Sané to be the most difficult player to replace given his quality in 2019 and the anecdotal evidence of watching the Lions struggle on the back line for the previous four years.
Will Johnson/Cristian Higuita/Uri Rosell/Carlos Ascues
While the team had perhaps too many solid defensive midfielders in 2019, now there is only Mendez remaining. All of the team’s defensive midfielders contributed in 2019 and each one brought something a bit different to the table. Higuita brought a bite to the game and great ball-winning skills. Ascues brought creativity and movement. Rosell was a great long ball provider. Johnson brought unlimited and infectious energy. With all of them making more than $420,000, you knew that they all wouldn’t be back. But I don’t think any of us thought they’d all be off the roster and, as a result, lumping them together creates a huge hole to fill at defensive midfield.
Everyone seemingly has their favorites. Some love Higuita for his ties to the inaugural team and his rugged challenges. Some love Johnson’s energy and drive. Others like Rosell’s passing and soccer smarts. With all of them out of contract, the defensive midfield needs to be completely rebuilt and hopefully Muzzi will be able to find suitable replacements that combine those qualities, allowing fans to adopt new favorites.
Shane O’Neill/Alex De John
I expect some push-back here but this section isn’t so much about the replacing the quality of the players leaving, but rather sufficiently bolstering the position. It has been extremely difficult for Orlando City to find starting quality central defenders who pair well together and, as discussed above, the Lions must do that as part of life after Sané. However, the club also needs to have quality depth that can step in and replace starters in case of suspension or injury and we’ve watched five years’ worth of the team not even having sufficient starting quality, let alone capable replacements on the bench.
O’Neill, De John, Ascues, Kamal Miller, and even Kyle Smith tried to fill in when Sané and/or Jansson were unavailable. None were able to provide sufficient coverage to show minimal drop-off from starter to backup. Now Orlando will need to replace its center back depth with better talent than it previously had. So, again, it’s not about the difficulty in finding guys who can replace O’Neill and De John so much as it is the problem of replacing them with players of the quality you wish those guys had in the first place. That’s the hard part and it’s vital in MLS, especially when fixture congestion sets in.
To summarize, Muzzi and the front office have their work cut out for them this off-season. Perhaps a few of the players out of contract could be brought back for less money, but I wouldn’t expect a lot of that. What that means is the club has a lot of holes to fill this off-season and the ones I mentioned above seem to be the most difficult.