It’s officially All-Star month. The big game kicks off against La Liga giants Atlético Madrid on July 31 with a week of events leading up to it, including the All-Star concert and Homegrown Game. So, while the city of Orlando gears up for the event with walls being decked out in All-Star murals, the team doesn’t personally have much to shout about.
With the final roster announcement last week including the coach and commissioner picks, we now know that off-season arrival Nani will be the Lions’ sole representative. It will be the first time in 12 years that a host team hasn’t had multiple players turn out for the All-Stars. Atlanta United had five players face Juventus last year and four Chicago Fire players made the grade when Real Madrid visited in 2017. To only have one player selected is a damning indictment of Orlando City both on and off the field. But what are the potential reasons behind it?
Orlando City’s Players are not Good Enough
It’s true — Orlando City had a spectacularly bad 2018 season and even though it’s looked better in 2019 it still sits outside the playoff places after losing nearly half of its games. It was never in doubt that Champions League and European Championship winner Nani would make the grade, but who else from the roster could be considered among the MLS elite? Ruan appeared on Bobby Warshaw’s MLS ballot and I think Sebas Méndez hasn’t had the attention his impact deserves, but I doubt either were close to winning the public vote. It’s perhaps even more tragic to think neither were deemed good enough by their own head coach. However, it’s naive to think the All-Star roster is only made up of people who deserve it.
In reality, the game is one huge marketing exercise: The European team seeks to grow its North American profile and MLS flexes its relevance on the global stage with the host team riding on the coattails. As I wrote previously, a large part of that will be the new-look purple jerseys. Another aspect is the newly branded Exploria Stadium — no coincidence the deal was put in place in time for the All-Star events.
Likewise, shoehorning your own team’s players into the team has always been great for optics, both giving local fans a something to get to the game and cheer for and also as a boost to your team’s perceived value and stature, something Orlando City has failed miserably at. It’s partly the reason why the coach and commissioner selections exist as they both have their own agenda to push.
Commissioner Don Garber selected 19-year MLS stalwart Nick Rimando in his retirement year and teenager Paxton Pomykal, who illustrates the domestic development success of MLS, just like former-Whitecap Alphonso Davies — now of Bayern Munich — did last year. Meanwhile James O’Connor, this year’s All-Star head coach, and the Orlando City front office had their one chance to gift multiple All-Star berths to the team’s young, high-upside talent such as Méndez, Chris Mueller and Ruan. Doing so would boost both the player’s confidence and market values in one fell swoop, but OCSC passed up on the golden opportunity.
O’Connor Wants to Rest His Players
O’Connor has already been very careful to manage the minutes of his players in competitive games so it is perhaps understandable on the face of it to think he really didn’t want to add another fixture to their calendars. However, in the purely showpiece event where players rarely play for more than a half anyway, the Irishman was never likely to push any of his Lions who made the 26-player roster very far at all.
It’s a terribly worn-out excuse, especially given that this year’s event requires absolutely no travel whatsoever for Orlando players and will be played on grass in a soccer-specific stadium — something that has not always been the case. Orlando plays on the road against the New England Revolution on the preceding Saturday and hosts FC Dallas the following Saturday with the All-Star Game falling on a Wednesday. I wouldn’t expect a mid-week 45 minutes of action (or less) in a glorified training match to have any impact on either fixture. If anything, going toe-to-toe against some of Europe’s big hitters, as well as training alongside the best of MLS, could prove an invaluable experience in player development.
That isn’t to say it’s not the case. It could be that Mueller appears on the All-Star mural because the club signed off on the design as it planned to have O’Connor select last year’s Rookie of the Year nominee and fan favorite but was later overruled by O’Connor, who instead opted to rest a player that has featured in all but one of Orlando City’s games across all competitions this season. If O’Connor has genuinely not selected any Orlando players based on this logic, especially after his apparently grueling approach to preseason, then stop the planet, I want to get off. The world’s gone soft.
The Will Johnson Effect
This one is for the conspiracy theorists out there, but Orlando City may only have one MLS All-Star because it didn’t want to pay up. It has been rumored that upon being told at the end of last year by O’Connor that his services were not needed in the 2019 season, Will Johnson revealed that his most recent appearance had in fact triggered an extension clause in his contract that would see him spend another 12 months in Central Florida.
Fast-forward to now and the Orlando City front office, which pinches pennies at times, is concerned that some of the players have All-Star bonuses written into their contracts that it never took the time to read. What’s the best way to make sure one isn’t activated? Don’t select them.
Whatever the reasons, it’s a bad look for the team that continues to defy expectations and set new record lows even in a season where its starting to trend upwards. All-Star was the perfect opportunity for the team to have something to boast about, regardless of how superficial the selections may have been. But even with its destiny in its own hands, OCSC has once again fallen short.