Orlando City’s frustrating reality: It still isn’t ready to contend

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a coaching change and roster turnover, the Lions are still on the outside looking in at postseason soccer.

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A blazing start to 2017 had Orlando City sitting on top of MLS entering May, seemingly sidestepping a tumultuous first two years in the league to get back on track.

The Lions won six of their first seven games, including five straight victories to christen their new downtown stadium. New signings Jonathan Spector and Scott Sutter looked very much the part. Third-year striker Cyle Larin was scoring goals at his usual clip.

Then things started falling back to reality.

Orlando City has won just twice since the start of May. Its 2-9-6 record in the last three-plus months is one of the worst in the league, and the Lions are looking up at the red line with a formidable task ahead in order to make the playoffs for the first time. The tailspin forced an active summer transfer window in which Orlando City paid a ransom to Sporting Kansas City for striker Dom Dwyer, then traded for Colorado Rapids midfielder Dillon Powers and added Peruvian Designated Player Yoshi Yotun from Malmo.

The moves may not be enough to save this season, but they appear to be as much about positioning Orlando City for the future as breaking into the postseason this year. And while it may not be what fans in Central Florida want to hear, Orlando City needs more time – and more stability – to build a consistent winner.

The price of changing course

The club overhauled the soccer operations staff after just a year and a half, and while head coach Jason Kreis adapted to the roster he inherited last July, it was clear he was going to move in a different direction with the type of team he wanted to put together.  Orlando City’s roster this season always felt disconnected, lacking the right pieces to play the way Kreis’ teams always have. That’s what happens when you have a roster put together by people with different visions for how to play.

Window-by-window, Orlando City has been moving closer to Kreis’ vision. This summer, it was Yotun and Powers, both of whom make Orlando City a better passing team right away. But Kreis and general manager Niki Budalic will likely have more work to do come winter.

The price for Dwyer, especially, hints that Orlando City may be ready to make more changes.

Dwyer has scored 33 goals since the start of 2015, seven fewer than Larin, which caused some around the league to scratch their heads. If Orlando City was ready to commit $1.6 million to trade for Dwyer and then sign him to a contract extension – some sources around the league believe Dwyer’s new deal will pay in the neighborhood of $1.5 million per year – why not just re-sign Larin on a deal that likely would have cost less?

The answer that makes the most sense is that Orlando City is lining up a sale for Larin and was looking for a “cheaper” way to sign a proven goal-scorer. Dwyer’s price may have been sky-high in MLS terms, but it’s a relatively inexpensive one on the global market, as long as Dwyer keeps scoring double-digit goals. If Orlando knows it is going to sell Larin, trading for Dwyer eases some pressure. It provides cover for whatever Orlando City wants to do.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The outlay of allocation money, however, will Orlando City to restock on Targeted Allocation Money and General Allocation Money to create budget space. There are a few ways that could happen, and both involve significant roster changes.

The first way to do so is by selling players. Orlando City has multiple players on its roster that will surely generate interest overseas and within the MLS market, including Larin, Tommy Redding, Cristian Higuita and Carlos Rivas. The club has fielded offers for three of those four in the past, and selling one, two or all of the players could put Orlando City right back into the top of the league when it comes to allocation reserves. Selling three could give Orlando City as much as $1.95 million in GAM.

That may not happen, of course. Rivas has moved to the bench since Dwyer’s arrival, but he could be the perfect partner if Kreis opts for a 4-4-2 diamond formation. Think Robbie Findley to Dwyer’s Yura Movsisyan. Higuita has been a semi-regular starter, but may be an option to sell if Kreis wants a more disciplined No. 6 sitting in front of the back line. Redding is a homegrown defender who can still be groomed into a starter.

Larin has been the most intriguing name to watch in the transfer market. A player developed within MLS, the striker has yet to see massive offers come in, but he has talent capable of commanding a $5-to-$7 million fee. How he adjusts to playing with Dwyer, however, could have a significant impact on that sale price.

Deciding on the Lions’ biggest names

Orlando City may also look to clear budget space in other ways, including one massive decision.

Kaka’s contract runs through the end of this season. The Brazilian superstar is the highest-paid player in MLS, and when he is on the field, he demands a system that revolves around his abilities – and his weaknesses. Kaka has scored 22 goals and added 22 assists since joining MLS, but he has failed to be the game-changing player that others in his price range, including Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa, have been. If Kaka retires or does not re-sign, Orlando City will clear a Designated Player off of its books and may have a chance to find a younger player to fill the spot.

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Kaka’s relationship with the team runs deep, however, and so it’s possible the Brazilian will be given a chance to decide his own future. 

Meanwhile, Orlando City can clear valuable budget space by letting go of midfielder Antonio Nocerino, another veteran who has been a decent player, but one that hasn’t delivered for his salary range, $850,000, similar to players like Mauro Diaz, Albert Rusnak and David Accam. If Giles Barnes is not renewed, that moves yet another big number off the cap.

Those three are the bigger names because they represent opportunity cost. What could be done with those DP and TAM slots?  Kreis’ needs include cash to find starters and depth pieces in a few key spots, including playmaker, No. 6, left back and center back.

If the three-year plan re-started last winter when Kreis and Budalic had their first window to start constructing “their” team, Orlando City is entering a critical portion of building a sustainable winner. Whether the Lions make the playoffs this season or not, there are important decisions to be made in the coming months.

How they handle the winter window, and the roster and budget construction, will go a long way toward determining the future of the franchise. But giving them the time and patience to do it will be as important a factor.

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