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Numbers Suggest Orlando City is Rebuilding the Right Way

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Orlando City just might be on to something when it comes to finally building a successful squad.

SOCCER: OCT 06 MLS - Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s not exactly a secret that Orlando City SC is once again in the process of rebuilding its squad. And after last season, who can blame the Lions? Another year of the team failing to make its playoff debut, another tortuous summer that was the primary cause of the aforementioned failure, and another squad that looked to have some promise at the beginning of the year only to fulfill very little of it. There wasn’t really another way forward other than to continue to try and remake the current squad into one that could finally land the organization its very first playoff berth, and once Oscar Pareja arrived, a group of new faces arrived shortly after him.

Given this team’s history in Major League Soccer, it’s quite tempting to say that this year will simply be more of the same. It would be easy (and, historically speaking, probable) to say that the players on the squad from last year still aren’t good enough, and that the new faces brought in to bolster the ranks won’t be good enough either. Only time will tell whether that proves to be true or not when it comes to the new recruits, but there are some numbers out there that suggest the team was much wiser this off-season about who it brought back from last year and who was allowed to walk away.

The below graphics show the percentage of total minutes played that returning players accounted for during the previous season. The graphic on the bottom is for the 2019 season, and shows minutes played during the 2018 season that would be returning for 2019; while the top graphic does the same thing for the upcoming 2020 season with numbers from 2019.

That was a bit confusing to even type, but the graphs make things much clearer. Basically, in 2019 returning Orlando City players accounted for just a little over 50% of the total minutes played during the 2018 season; while in 2020 returning Lions account for just under 75% of the team’s total minutes played during 2019. The team had a roughly 20% increase in how many minutes returning players accounted for during the previous season, and while that seems like a weird statistic to bring up, digging deeper into the players who were brought back as opposed to the departures helps provide some clarity.

Out of the top 10 players who played the most league minutes for the Lions during 2019, only two are no longer with the squad today. Lamine Sané was excellent last year, but as a soon-to-be 33-year-old center back who had an injury-plagued 2018 and was on a base salary of $902,500, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why he isn’t back this year. Something similar can be said for Will Johnson. Even though the 33-year-old midfielder works harder than almost anyone when he’s on the field, his base salary of $455,000, combined with his age and the younger Oriol Rosell and Sebas Mendez already being on the roster, meant that he was always likely to be the odd one out.

The other eight members of the squad who played the most minutes during 2019 were consistently some of Orlando’s best performers. According to WhoScored.com, Brian Rowe tops the list, followed directly by Robin Jansson and Nani. Then, it’s Ruan, Tesho Akindele, and Mendez at Nos. 5, 6, and 7, with Dom Dwyer and Rosell at ninth and 10th. The other end of the list is equally as telling. The only person who played fewer minutes than the now departed Greg Ranjitsingh was Josué Colmán, who is still out on loan and was 27th out of 27 in league minutes played. Dillon Powers was 21st on the team, with Cristian Higuita, Danilo Acosta, and Shane O’Neill directly above him. None of those four are with the team now, and neither is Carlos Ascues, who played the 16th-most minutes.

Of the nine players culled from Orlando’s squad at the end of the year, only four played more than 1,000 minutes in MLS in 2019. Together, those players accounted for 9,394 out of 33,450 minutes for the entire team — 33,604 if you count the currently out-on-loan Colmán. Sané and Johnson alone supplied 3,972 of the minutes played by departing players, accounting for 42% of the total of 9,394. If you do the math, departed players accounted for roughly 28% of the team’s minutes last year.

What all of that math amounts to is this: most of the players no longer on Orlando City SC’s books from 2019 weren’t major contributors. And most of the players who were brought back from last year were ones who played a large number of minutes, and tended to play well in those minutes. Players like Acosta and Powers didn’t make significant contributions to the team last year, and while their salaries of $110,000 and $200,000, respectively, weren’t astronomical, there also wasn’t really a reason to bring them back.

I’ll admit this isn’t a completely fair and straightforward comparison. The Lions squad was absolutely gutted during the off-season prior to the 2019 MLS season, with the cull claiming those who played both big and small minutes alike.

Joe Bendik, Mohamed El-Munir, Amro Tarek, and Scott Sutter all were in the top 10 when it came to minutes played during the 2018 season but none were with the team for 2019. Justin Meram and Jonathan Spector also played over 1,000 minutes for the club and neither were brought back. On the other end of the spectrum, guys like Jose Villarreal, Pierre Da Silva, and Donny Toia barely saw action and also weren’t brought back for 2019. However, keep in mind that the team parted with a whopping 16 players last off-season from a very bloated 30-man squad, so statistically speaking there was always likely to be a comparable amount of guys who played both many and few minutes the previous season.

In the end, my point is this: I believe that compared to last year Orlando did a much better job this off-season of getting rid of players who didn’t make meaningful contributions in 2019, while also keeping those who did. I also think those two graphs seem to back up that train of thought. Of course, this all might not matter once the ball is kicked on Feb. 29.

Everything could implode for this team yet again and — much like Maxine Nightingale — we might be “Right Back Where We Started From” this time next year. It could be that the returning players from last year don’t perform well. After all, just because players are coming back doesn’t mean the team will be any good (although squad stability generally leads to chemistry, which is a good thing). When I look at the big minute earners the Lions brought back though, I see a lot of talented and consistently good performers, and I would argue that the numbers suggest we have at least a little more reason for optimism than we did in years past.