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Benji Michel Signs with FC Arouca

The Orlando City Homegrown Player is off to Portugal despite holding a Bona Fide offer from the Lions.

MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Orlando City SC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando City’s most successful Homegrown Player to date is leaving the club. Benji Michel held a Bona Fide offer from the Lions as the club attempted to re-sign him ahead of the 2023 season but the Orlando native has signed with FC Arouca in Portugal’s top flight, the Primeira Liga. The Portuguese side announced the signing today on social media.

Orlando City then tweeted out the club’s thanks to Michel for his contributions and wished him good luck on the next step in his career.

Michel, 25, signed as Orlando City’s fifth Homegrown Player on New Year’s Eve 2018. The former University of Portland forward and Montverde Academy product appeared in 103 matches with Orlando City, starting 50. He leaves with 15 goals and six assists to his credit in 5,154 minutes. He also appeared in all four of the club’s playoff games to date, starting one and playing 115 minutes. While he didn’t have a goal contribution in regular play, it was Michel’s penalty kick that sent Orlando City past New York City FC in the Lions’ first-ever MLS Cup playoff match after Rodrigo Schlegel’s memorable save.

Although Michel’s production has fallen off over the past few years, even as his minutes have increased, he always served as a high-energy player who could change a game with his speed and desire, even if the end product wasn’t always there.

Michel scored five goals in each of his first two seasons, doing so in 17 games (nine starts) across 943 minutes in 2019 and adding two assists to go with his handful of strikes in 2020 in 21 games (eight starts) totaling 839 minutes. In 2021, Michel was given more playing time, seeing action in all 34 games (19 starts) and playing 1,870 minutes, but his goal total dropped to four, even though he set a new career high with three assists. This past season, Michel appeared in 31 games (14 starts), playing 1,502 minutes, but he scored only once and provided just one assist. His goal came on opening day and he did not add any regular-season goals the rest of the year. He attempted 25 shots — his second-most as a pro — but put only eight on target, which was a new career low.

It was in the U.S. Open Cup where Michel’s 2022 impact was most effective. He played in four of the Lions’ six matches in the competition (two starts), logging 266 minutes and contributing two goals and three assists. He was massive in the final against Sacramento Republic FC, setting up the opening goal, drawing a penalty that Facundo Torres converted, and then putting the exclamation point on the match with a late goal of his own.

He may not have always lived up to those flashes of potential he showed in his time in Orlando, but without Michel, the team may not have advanced after its first playoff game or won the club’s first trophy of its MLS era.

Beyond his contributions on the field, Michel always represented the club well. He flashed that infectious smile often and electrified the crowd with his goal celebrations, including his patented back flips and his penchant for finding the most improbable props.

On a personal note, I have enjoyed the club’s video meme of Benji after winning games, because it was my question in a postgame media scrum about what Michel could take away from that night’s performance that led to this perfect response:

Kudos to Benji for catching on with a club in a top-flight European league. At 25, there’s still some growth potential for Michel and perhaps a fresh start will see his confidence grow and lead to more goals and assists. As one of Orlando’s own and a Homegrown Player who provided excitement during his time in purple, fans will likely think of his time here fondly. Those of us who cover the team will miss getting to talk to him regularly.

What It Means for Orlando City

The Lions are in need of a speedy forward who can replicate what Michel brought to the team, but a bit more final product would be nice. In fact, the forward position group is wafer thin at the moment. Behind Ercan Kara, the club currently has second-year pro Jack Lynn, who struggled to get a few minutes with the first team in 2022, and a couple of 2023 MLS SuperDraft picks — Shakur Mohammed and Duncan McGuire.

Even if the Lions are convinced that the two rookies can make the senior team in 2023, it’s imperative to improve the depth at the position by adding at least one experienced goal scorer after the departures of Alexandre Pato, Tesho Akindele, and Michel. Kara suffered a few knocks in 2022 and if he misses any time, things get dicey pretty quickly.

Who knows? Maybe Muhammed or McGuire becomes the next Cyle Larin or Daryl Dike, but history tells us there’s no way to count on that happening.

Michel’s departure doesn’t free up much cap room, either. His base salary in 2022 was $115,000, which is not much for a veteran forward, and his total guaranteed compensation was $121,303, per the MLS Players Association. Finding a replacement, particularly a more productive one, is sure to be more expensive.

It will be interesting to see how Orlando City Executive Vice President and General Manager Luiz Muzzi addresses the forward position before the season, as we’re now just a few days from the start of preseason camp.

But, honestly, it’s going to be tough to replace this: