A year ago Orlando City parted ways with nine players after the 2018 season. The Lions decided not to exercise the contracts of eight players and the contract of one other had expired. While we wait for the shoe to drop on the 2019 roster and — since there are national pundits who like to point out how great everyone does after leaving the Lions — it’s worth looking at how those players fared after leaving Orlando.
Here are the nine players Orlando let go immediately following the 2018 season:
- Richie Laryea
- Joe Bendik
- Tony Rocha
- Chris Schuler
- Jonathan Spector
- Scott Sutter
- Donny Toia
- Jose Villarreal
- Earl Edwards Jr. (contract expired)
As typically happens with players who leave any team, some of them went on and found some success while others did not. So how did the former Lions fare?
Easily the biggest success story of the bunch, the former OCSC draft selection went on trial with Toronto FC and made the team out of camp. Greg Vanney converted the former attacking midfielder to fullback and he showed an aptitude for it in 2019. He started 16 games and played in 20 with TFC, amassing 1,468 minutes. He scored his first MLS goal and added two assists, taking 17 shots and getting four of them on target. His season was successful but could he have worked out in Orlando? While here, he was a solid-to-good USL player but never could earn minutes with the first team. There was never an indication that any coach here tried to convert him to midfield or even if he was open to it. Getting cut may have been just the humbling type of experience to make a young player open to change. It’s good for Laryea that he was willing to try a new position to get on the field and it even got him back into his national team picture. Of those who left Orlando after last season, Laryea is clearly the biggest success story as he’s about to compete for MLS Cup this weekend and he’s the guy people pushing a narrative will use to “prove” their point.
The former Orlando City starting goalkeeper split the 2019 season between the Columbus Crew and Philadelphia Union. He had trouble getting on the field for either team, getting just six matches with the Crew and none for the Union. He made 14 saves and allowed 12 goals with the Crew, losing five games, tying one, and winning none. After 92 starts with the Lions over three years, one might expect him to catch on somewhere as a starter but he was behind Zack Steffen for half a year and behind Andre Blake the other half. Perhaps Bendik can resurrect his place as a starter somewhere with several expansion teams coming into the league. But his 2019 season was not an indicator that Orlando made a mistake, especially with as solidly as Brian Rowe played in his place.
The former OCB player who City signed to an MLS contract fell upwards. Instead of being a backup defensive midfielder with Orlando, he ended up a backup defensive midfielder with New York City FC, where he tied a career high with nine starts and established new career highs in appearances (17) and minutes played (871). He finished with one assist and two shot attempts (neither on goal), which were both below his totals in Orlando last year. He also committed a career high 15 fouls. We already knew Rocha was a useful backup, so he didn’t really show anything new in the Big Apple.
The veteran defender showed he was a warrior in 2018, playing through a broken arm. However, Schuler did not play in 2019 and, according to his Wikipedia page, he is pursuing an events manager career with U.S. Soccer.
The former U.S. international defender who played so well in 2017 for Orlando before injuries derailed his 2018 season ended up playing one measly game with Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership in 2019 and retired after the season. It took him seemingly forever to catch on with Hibernian after leaving Orlando but in the end — like Schuler — his playing career was essentially over after having his option declined by Orlando.
Former Orlando right back Sutter caught on with the Vancouver Whitecaps — one of the only two teams worse than the Lions in 2019. He played in his fewest MLS games (16) and saw his fewest starts (9) in his three seasons in the league, scoring one goal but failing to provide an assist for the first time in three years in Major League Soccer. He attempted five shots and got two on frame, which were both his lowest MLS season totals. Vancouver let Sutter go after the season.
Like Laryea, Toia was able to find regular minutes for a playoff team in 2019. He appeared in 24 matches (all starts) with Real Salt Lake — the place where his MLS career began — and played 2,143 minutes. He scored his second career goal and first since 2015 and added one assist, which is the same number of assists he had in just four appearances with Orlando in 2018. He attempted 11 shots and got two on target. While Toia managed to get meaningful minutes with RSL, he wasn’t much of a game changer and he would have been buried behind Joao Moutinho on this year’s roster if he’d stayed, although he’d have made a nice upgrade at the backup left back spot.
The once promising prospect with the LA Galaxy struggled to earn a spot in the game day 18 in 2018. Unable to find an MLS team in 2019, he ended up in the USL Championship with the Las Vegas Lights, where he made 16 appearances (10 starts) and scored one goal, adding two assists. He was a backup option on a USL team, so it did not appear that Orlando made a mistake in jettisoning the 26-year-old forward.
Earl Edwards Jr.
The former Orlando City No. 2 caught on with playoff team D.C. United but he did not appear in a single match in 2019 after playing in six the last two seasons with the Lions. Instead, he was sent to Loudoun in the USL Championship, where he started 16 matches and conceded 29 goals, making 59 saves on 88 shots faced. He was third among the four goalkeepers Loudoun used in 2019 in save success rate (67%), just three-tenths of a percentage point ahead of Chris Seitz, who played in one USL game.
What all of this means is that Orlando City didn’t fail to get the best out of some really good players who went on to excel with better teams. Laryea is easily the biggest success story but that required a position change that few (if any) saw coming, while Toia managed to become a starter at Real Salt Lake but that team will likely be searching for an upgrade this off-season. Rocha ended up with essentially the same backup job in New York City that he had in Orlando but didn’t noticeably become any better. Bendik struggled in two new locations to even see the field, while Sutter played his way off of a worse team. Villarreal and Edwards ended up back in the USL, while the careers of Schuler and Spector came to a close.
This doesn’t really support any sort of narrative about how amazing it is that guys “hit their groove” after leaving Orlando. Sure, some guys have been successful elsewhere over five seasons. It happens everywhere. Some players fit other systems better or need a change of scenery. Some click better with some teams than others or learn something from their failure in one place that they can apply in their next stop on the journey.
But it’s not like we didn’t all know Kevin Molino was good. He wanted more money and didn’t seem keen on playing for Jason Kreis, preferring to go with Adrian Heath to Minnesota. It’s not like the team didn’t want to keep Yoshimar Yotún, but he wanted to go and they sold him for a profit. Sure, you can point to some success stories, as with any team, but for every Laryea there are at least two guys like David Mateos and three or four like Danny Mwanga. Orlando has improved its talent level over the last five years — that isn’t the problem. The issue is that despite getting better talent, it hasn’t done enough to keep up with the rest of MLS, which has also gotten better and the previous regime made some mistakes that the current one is trying to dig out from under.
Perhaps we’re starting to finally see the right amount of positive change with the Luiz Muzzi hiring. We’ll see how he does with his first full off-season after bringing in some promising players (Ruan, Robin Jansson, etc.) in the last year.