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Orlando City Still Searching for Young Stars Abroad

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Orlando City’s recent signings show that the club is focused on finding promising talent in South America.

SOCCER: AUG 26 MLS Nashville SC at Orlando City SC

MLS teams use multiple mechanisms to build rosters. In addition to standard contracts, which must fall within the league’s salary range, teams can use other methods of acquiring high-salaried players. Some teams have stuck with one method while others have gone with a hybrid approach.

The most notable Orlando City signings have been Kaká and Nani. Kaká was signed in 2014, during the club’s final season in USL Pro, and played for the club from 2015-2017. Nani signed from Sporting CP prior to the 2019 season and was with the club until the end of the 2021 campaign.

While the Lions have gone out and convinced foreign stars to join the club, they’ve also been searching for young talent in South and Central America. MLS has put an emphasis on bringing in younger stars for several years and some clubs have been more successful than others.

Atlanta United has been one of the most successful clubs at bringing young Latin American talent into the league. 23-year-old attackers Miguel Almiron (Paraguay) and Josef Martinez (Venezuela) were signed prior to the team’s inaugural 2017 season, helping the team reach the playoffs in its first season and win the team’s first MLS Cup the following year.

Orlando City has been attempting to find similar success, even before Atlanta United was a thought in Arthur Blank’s mind. Under the leadership of former head coach Adrian Health and general manager Paul McDonough, the Lions built Orlando’s first MLS squad on youth.

Prior to the 2015 MLS season, Orlando City signed Honduran striker Bryan Rochez (20) and Colombian striker Carlos Rivas (20) to Young Designated Player contracts. The team also acquired Colombian midfielder Cristian Higuita (21), who was headed to Milan before an injury halted the deal to the Serie A giants.

Unfortunately, none of those three players made the impact that the Lions had hoped. Rochez would only make 16 appearances for the first team, finding a more stable spot with the club’s second team, Orlando City B. Rivas and Higuita both found places in the first team, with the latter making more than 100 appearances. However, neither reached an All-Star level.

Despite the lack of early success with this strategy, Orlando City wasn’t deterred. Prior to the 2018 MLS season, the Lions signed 20-year-old Paraguayan winger Josue Colman to a YDP deal. Colman made 32 appearances with 11 starts before going on loan back to his original club, Cerro Porteno, and having his option declined by the club following the 2020 season.

Prior to the 2019 MLS season, Orlando City made a significant change, bringing in Luiz Muzzi from FC Dallas to be the club’s executive vice president of soccer operations. It was the first time Orlando City had an experienced person in charge since 2015, when the club made a massive mistake in bringing in Armando Carneiro, pushing out McDonough. Within a month, both had resigned from their positions with the club.

After a season of examining the club’s status, Muzzi took charge prior to the 2020 season. He hired former FC Dallas head coach Oscar Parjea and former FC Dallas academy director Marcelo Neveleff. For the first time since 2015, the team was finally headed in the right direction.

Similar to his predecessors with the club, Muzzi has focused on the South American market to find young talent. In 2019, the club signed 21-year-old Ecuadorian international midfielder Sebas Mendez. That was followed by the signing of 19-year-old Colombian midfielder Andres Perea, who has since signed a permanent deal with the club and switched his international allegiance to the United States.

Whether or not Mendez and Perea become the first stars out of South America for Orlando City remains to be seen. Mendez has become a regular starter at defensive midfield for the club, but has had some injury troubles. Still only 21 years old, Perea is still trying to fight his way into Pareja’s starting lineup.

During the 2021 MLS season, the league created a new mechanism to entice teams to further invest in young talent. The MLS U22 Initiative allows teams to sign up to three players 22 years old or younger to lucrative contracts without going over the salary cap. The timing of the new rule made it difficult for clubs to take advantage during 2021 but Orlando City is taking advantage for 2022.

Orlando City lost many attacking players following the 2021 MLS season. Chris Mueller left the club for Scotland’s Hibernian FC, Daryl Dike was sold to West Bromwich Albion, and Nani’s option was not exercised after the aging star spent more time on the bench than on the field late in the year. Fortunately, the club was able to re-sign Mauricio Pereyra or it would’ve been looking at replacing the entire attack.

Rather than looking to aging stars to replace Mueller, Dike, and Nani, Orlando City has gone back to the South American market. The first signing for 2022 was 20-year-old Uruguayan midfielder Cesar Araujo from Montevideo Wanderers. That was followed up by an even bigger signing in 21-year-old Facundo Torres as a Young Designated Player from Penarol, who has already broken into the Uruguayan senior national team.

With Torres, Orlando City now has four South Americans 24 years old or younger and three 21 years old and younger. What these recent signings show is that Orlando City is focused on developing young South American talent instead of bringing in aging stars.

After briefly focusing on youth heading into the 2015 season, Orlando City went on a foreign spending spree, bringing in older players like Julio Baptista and Antonio Nocerino. However, the club eventually went back to looking at young players from abroad, hoping to develop one or two into bona fide stars. Under Muzzi and Pareja, the Lions are back to that original method of player acquisition and the club’s future success depends on the development of those young players.