On Wednesday Orlando City announced the signing of left back Jonathan Suarez on loan from Queretaro FC in Mexico. Suarez was brought in on a one-year loan deal which includes an option to buy him at the end of the 2021 Major League Soccer season. If the phrase “with an option to buy” sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason for that. Since the arrival of Luiz Muzzi, Orlando has time and again brought in players (especially young ones) on loan deals which include an option to sign the player to a permanent contract.
On Jan. 22, the Lions signed 22-year-old goalkeeper Brandon Austin to a six-month loan that has an option to extend his time in Orlando for another six months. Thus far, using loans with built-in options on young players is a strategy that has paid off well, and a look at Orlando’s roster for the 2020 season reveals multiple players who were acquired in the manner previously mentioned and went on to be successful with OCSC.
The most notable of this group is Antonio Carlos. The big center back was signed on a one-year loan with an option to buy back in December of 2019 and after the year he had in 2020, it’s likely that making his deal permanent was near the top of the Lions’ to-do list at the end of the season. The defender made 20 regular season appearances for OCSC and chipped in a goal and an assist, and also started both playoff games.
Carlos slightly breaks the mold of the other loan signings on the Lions’ roster because he was 26 years old when signed. While he became a crucial piece for the Lions during his first season, it’s important to remember that he was a semi-unknown quantity when he was signed. Although he had a great season with Palmeiras in 2018, he fell sharply out of favor in 2019, and hadn’t played a ton of professional games for someone his age. Because of that, a loan signing was a low-risk, high-reward method of bringing him in, and it was a smart decision that has paid dividends.
The other big success story from 2020 is Andres Perea. He was also signed in December 2019, in the exact same method as Carlos, and now Suarez — a one-year loan with an option to buy at the end of the season. Just 19 years of age when he signed, Perea was definitely an unknown quantity, with just 15 professional appearances to his name for Colombia’s Atletico Nacional. To paraphrase our own Sean Rollins, although he filled a position of need at defensive midfielder, the massive question was whether or not he would be able to be a productive player in MLS.
He didn’t get a ton of playing time at first, but actually ended up appearing in every one of the team’s 23 regular season games and both playoff games. The youngster impressed to the point that he earned a USMNT call-up and made his debut this past Sunday. He too, had his option to buy exercised after the 2020 season ended, and might very well become a mainstay in midfield during 2021.
The other two loan players on Orlando’s roster this year were Rodrigo Schlegel and Alexander Alvarado, both of whom were signed to permanent contracts in December after being signed on one-year loan deals in December of 2019 and October of 2020, respectively. Both are under the age of 24, and fill positions of need for the team. While Alvarado didn’t have too much time to show what he was capable of on the field, Schlegel was a capable defender when called upon; and of course he isn’t too shabby in goal either. Although it’s too early to label either player a success or failure for the team, the Lions were smart to give themselves time to evaluate them before committing long-term, which didn’t used to be the case.
Signing younger players wasn’t always done this way by Orlando City, and the results didn’t work out in the Lions’ favor all of the time. Carlos Rivas was signed as a Young Designated Player at the age of 20, and though initial returns were promising, he was unable to make good on the flashes of potential he showed early on and his development stalled badly. The team eventually traded him to the New York Red Bulls in 2018 along with Tommy Redding and allocation money in exchange for Sacha Kljestan; and he’s now playing back in his native Colombia.
The other big swing and miss that jumps out in recent years is Josué Colmán, who was actually brought in just a few weeks after the departure of Rivas. His arrival was ballyhooed to say the very least, with the Lions handing him the no. 10 shirt and a five-year contract as a Young Designated Player to go along with it. Things...did not work out. While he was only 19 at the time, he simply did not produce the way a YDP needs to, and went out on loan in June of 2019 before having his contract option declined at the end of the 2020 season.
The Colmán contract in particular, which came under previous general manager Niki Budalic, is emblematic of the way MLS teams used to do business prior to “MLS 3.0” — that is to say, chucking money and long contracts at young, often South American players in a race to find the next Luciano Acosta or Miguel Almiron. If you’re a club with vastly deep pockets, that can be a semi-successful strategy, but Orlando doesn’t fall under that category and so a change in philosophy was needed for the club to start succeeding when it came to signing young players.
OCSC has certainly gotten better at identifying young talent since Muzzi arrived, and that fact shouldn’t be overlooked. However, the Lions have also become smarter in the way they bring those players on board, and regardless of what they show on the field, Suarez and Austin are the latest examples of that new thinking being put into action.