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Orlando City Signs Brazilian Left Back Rafael Santos

The 24-year-old defender joins from Cruzeiro on a two-year deal with two additional option years.

Atletico Mineiro v Cruzeiro - Campeonato Mineiro 2022 Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images

Orlando City announced today that the club has signed 24-year-old defender Rafael Lucas Cardoso dos Santos, more commonly known as Rafael Santos, from Cruzeiro of Brazil’s Série A. The Lions add the left back on a two-year deal through the 2024 MLS season with additional club options that could keep the Brazilian in the City Beautiful for the 2025 and 2026 seasons.

Santos will need to clear a medical exam and he’ll be set to join the club, pending receipt of his International Transfer Certificate and P-1 Visa.

“Rafael is a technically gifted left back, has great touch on the ball, and creates danger in the attacking third with his crossing and set piece abilities,” Orlando City Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations and General Manager Luiz Muzzi said in a club press release. “He brings experience from the first division in Brazil and is someone we expect to provide competition in that position within our team.”

Santos has appeared in 92 competitive matches as a pro, scoring five goals and adding eight assists. A native of Londrina, Brazil, he developed in the academy of Serie B side Mirassol. His professional career began in 2017 with Mirassol, scoring once in 16 appearances. He was loaned to Cruzeiro’s U-20 side in 2018 and played in one match before joining that club’s senior squad permanently for the 2019 season. Santos played in 10 matches with Cruzeiro in 2019 and has since gone on a series of loans from 2020 through 2022, playing for Chapecoense, Inter de Limeira, Ponte Preta, and Junior Urso’s new team, Coritiba.

His most productive stint was 26 matches in 2021 with Ponte Preta, when he scored three times in 26 appearances. While with Chapecoense, he won a Serie B title during the pandemic-delayed 2020 season.

What It Means for Orlando City

The Lions now have two options at left back in the wake of Joao Moutinho’s departure. After having the right-footed Kyle Smith as the primary backup at left back in 2022, Orlando City has a pair of left-footed players at the position after the off-season signings of Santos today and 22-year-old Homegrown Player Luca Petrasso from Toronto FC on Nov. 9. It will be nice to have a natural left-footed fullback option off the bench, with Smith also able to step in if there are multiple injuries or suspensions.

It’s unclear at the moment whether the club sees Santos or Petrasso as the starter at left back or if there will simply be a camp battle to determine the spot in preseason. Santos, who will turn 25 on Feb. 5, has a little more experience than Petrasso, although he’s played more in Serie B than Serie A during his pro career.

It is notable that Muzzi talked about technical ability upon signing both Petrasso and Santos, but he specifically mentioned the latter’s ability to create danger with crosses and set pieces. This has been a problem for the club in recent years, but primarily from the right side, with former Lion Ruan pushing up the field and limiting the amount of forays up the field Moutinho could make on the other side in order to maintain defensive balance. Moutinho was a much better crosser than Ruan but wasn’t as quick to get up the pitch from a position typically much deeper than the Brazilian speedster’s.

Santos will require an international slot, but the team freed one of those up when Ruan was traded to D.C. United prior to the MLS SuperDraft in December. Additionally, multiple Lions who have been with the team for a couple of years should be close to attaining their green cards.

With the left back position solidified, the Lions still need to add an attacker in the midfield and some forward depth this off-season, and an additional depth center back wouldn’t hurt.

Here’s a look at what Santos brings: