Rebuilding a roster in Major League Soccer is not easy. If this is an inherited, underperforming, and overpaid squad, the task at hand gets even harder. That was the scenario Orlando City SC’s new front office navigated through to put together the team’s roster before the start of the 2019 season, which kicked off on Saturday with a 2-2 home tie against New York City FC.
Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi, Director of Scouting Ricardo Moreira, and Head Coach James O’Connor had all a very busy off-season and the roster building process will only be officially concluded when the team completes the signing of Swedish center back Robin Jansson, possibly in the next few days.
The feeling among the group of executives, according to one source close to the situation, is that “some miracles were made” to put this roster together. That’s because the Lions ended last season, still under former general manager Niki Budalic, with very limited financial flexibility and were “significantly below league average” in resources available, as it was described to The Mane Land.
Because of that, the first measure was to start disassembling that roster and free up cap space by offloading salaries. Defender Jonathan Spector, who made nearly $640,000 last season, was the best example of this approach. Yoshimar Yotún’s departure, even if the club wanted to keep him, also helped in the process.
By not extending some contracts and trading other players within the league, the Lions let the likes of goalkeepers Joe Bendik and Earl Edwards Jr.; defenders Scott Sutter, RJ Allen, Amro Tarek, Mohamed El-Munir, and Donny Toia; midfielders Richie Laryea and Tony Rocha; and forwards Jose Villarreal and Stefano Pinho all walk. Even if some of them had relatively affordable deals, Orlando cleared nearly $2.9 million (based on 2018 salaries) with their departures.
Per sources, the club also tried to trade away the contracts of midfielders Will Johnson, who reportedly triggered a clause on his deal that would double his salary from the $470,000 he made in 2018, and Sacha Kljestan, but no takers were found.
Orlando’s player acquisition strategy also followed the austerity route. The Lions only spent significant amounts of money on two of their 12 signings — when they acquired Portuguese winger Nani and Ecuadoran midfielder Sebas Mendez.
The deals, however, had different profiles. With Nani, a player the front office expects to bring some much-needed firepower to the team, City was only able to pull the trigger when it convinced Portuguese side Sporting CP to let him go for free, committing resources just for his salary. This strategy was previously attempted and nearly succeeded with Diego Ribas, but the player waited to accept long enough to get an offer (though not as lucrative as he was hoping) to return to Flamengo in Brazil.
To acquire Sebas, on the other hand, the Lions did pay a transfer fee, but they are very confident the Ecuadoran international will develop in Florida and repay the club for its investment when he’s sold in the future.
From there on, Orlando had to be creative. To acquire Danilo Acosta from the Real Salt Lake, for example, the team managed to put together a rarely used intra-league loan deal, not giving up valuable assets to bring him to Central Florida. The other left back the club signed, João Moutinho, was brought in a trade with LAFC that sent El-Munir to California. The move, which might not have made much sense for many at first, ended up freeing up almost $200,000 in salary and an international slot, since the Portuguese has already got his green card.
The Lions were also looking for players who could be signed at no cost and they found two reasonable options in goalkeeper Brian Rowe, an MLS veteran of seven seasons, and defender Alex De John, an American player with international experience in Europe. Brazilian right back Ruan was brought at a very low cost, on a loan deal that could become permanent at the end of the season if the club wants.
O’Connor’s connections in the United Soccer League (USL) were not disregarded as the club also looked at players from the league to fill its roster. Goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh and fullback Kyle Smith, who both played for the head coach at Louisville City FC and have his confidence, were the selected. Smith made his MLS debut on Saturday in the season opener while Ranjitsingh was on the bench, backing up Rowe.
Orlando City had a tough off-season ahead of it after the 2018 season, and sources say the feeling within the club is that the roster building process was successfully completed. While to many the squad may still not look great, it’s definitely a step in the right direction — and hopefully the first of many other steps to come.