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The MLS Landscape is Changing, Will Orlando City Change With It?

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The MLS 3.0 arms race took a new turn this week and it will make things tougher than ever for the Lions to compete.

Soccer: International Champions Cup-AC Fiorentina vs Guadaljara Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’ - Bob Dylan

Orlando City doesn’t have far to sink to get to the bottom of Major League Soccer. The team narrowly missed the playoffs in its inaugural year and has since spent 2015 to 2018 on a downward trajectory, with a slight improvement in 2019. While great strides were made defensively last season, the offense went backward and now the club moves forward without its best defender after the departure of Lamine Sané.

And now there are more troubling signs around the league as smaller market teams have recognized that they can’t compete for a playoff spot, let alone a championship, unless they start digging into their bank accounts. Estimates are that Sporting Kansas City has paid around a $10 million transfer fee to secure the services of Mexican striker Alan Pulido. Reports out of Vancouver suggest that the Whitecaps are forking over at least $5 million (and possibly north of $6 million) to buy Lucas Cavallini.

This is a sea change in spending for MLS small market clubs. Sporting Kansas City, like Orlando City, finished 11th in its conference last season. Vancouver finished 12th. SKC’s investment in Pulido isn’t fully known yet but it is believed to be between the ninth- and 12th-highest transfer fee in league history. A look down the list of the highest transfer fees linked above turns up the words “Atlanta,” “Toronto,” “Seattle,” and “Los Angeles” a lot. It’s not a surprise that those are the teams in the running for the championship year after year.

Spending big is not something Orlando City has done much of in the past. Sure, the Lions have invested in a single big-money player just about every year. Kaká was the league’s most expensive player for a while and Nani doesn’t come cheap at just under $2.5 million per year. Additionally, Orlando uses its DP slots, and we’ve talked at great length in the past at how those have been squandered. But salaries are one thing and big transfer fees are another. Nani came to Orlando on a free transfer, meaning there was no up-front money just to buy the player’s rights. He’s not a player in his ascendancy, although he’s still putting up MLS DP-like numbers for his role.

Big-spending clubs, like the two clubs in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto, etc., have not shied away from spending just to get a player’s rights. As such, they reap the rewards those kinds of players bring with them, riding high in the standings and competing for trophies. If Flavio Augusta da Silva isn’t willing (or able) to keep up with them, he’ll now need to at least try to keep up with what teams like Vancouver and SKC are doing, or else risk the Lions falling even further behind.

To be sure, there are more economical ways of building a team, and Luiz Muzzi has already shown the ability to find good players on a budget in his short time with Orlando City. But this recent willingness by small market teams to spend record money on transfer fees shows a new escalation in the MLS 3.0 arms race. Will the Lions be able to keep up just by signing young, inexpensive players and developing them? Probably not, because the moment they develop into something special, bigger clubs in Europe will come calling to buy them away and the process will start all over again. Developing Homegrown Players will help, and the Lions are embracing that at the moment.

It’s not impossible to build a team of bargains into a competitor, but the odds are certainly stacked against that method. Economics generally dictate that better players make more money and sports history shows that spending on better players generally yields better results in the win-loss column — not always, but generally. One needs look no further than the final four teams in the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs to see that. Seattle, Toronto, Atlanta, and LAFC were four of the five highest spending teams this past year. The only failure at the top was the Chicago Fire, who spent the third most in MLS. Spending money can’t guarantee success but it sure can stack the deck in your favor.

Conversely, the lowest five teams in spending saw the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas reach the postseason, with Houston, Colorado, and Vancouver all failing to get to the playoffs. Red Bulls have a structure and system unlike any other in MLS, and so they’re a bit of an outlier. Dallas, which has a terrific academy system, built its team the way Orlando City is now trying to do, but was knocked out in the first round after squeaking into the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Orlando spent about $3.8 million more than Dallas last year, give or take a bit. (It’s difficult to know how much of a player’s salary was picked up by the team from players who went out on loan for all or part of the season.) The club’s final payroll was $12,413,226.33, according to the MLSPA September salary release. Obviously there were some bad investments in there, including more than a million for little-used Sacha Kljestan.

The champion Sounders had 13 players making more than $500,000 per year in 2019. Orlando had seven. The Lions must be more shrewd with the use of DP slots and allocation money, which is something we’ve all known for some time, and you don’t dig out from under bad contracts overnight. The Lions jettisoned three players — Sané, Kljestan, and Cristian Higuita — who were in the over-$500,000 bucket, along with Will Johnson, who was just under that mark. Muzzi also just re-signed Uri Rosell, who was a bit north of that number before his option year was declined, but could now be below — we’ll have to wait until the next salary release by the MLSPA to find out for sure.

The Lions have plenty of cap room to play with now. They should be flush with allocation money. But will they also be willing to spend millions up front, just to get players’ rights before a guy even takes the field? SKC and Vancouver are now showing a willingness to do that. While one big-money addition won’t guarantee those teams success, they’ve at least acknowledged that the playoffs won’t be getting much closer without some greater investment. Orlando almost certainly must start to approximate following suit or risk falling even further off the pace.

The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’