ORLANDO, Fla. – A rebuilding project. A major rebuilding project. And a major rebuilding project that has to take place in two months.
That’s the challenge sitting on the desk of Orlando City SC general manager Niki Budalic right now.
For most teams, the offseason is a period of consolidation and minor reconstruction, not one for acquiring up to 12 new players. But Budalic and head coach Jason Kreis face a plus-sized task following an end-of-season clearout that saw no less than a dozen players leave.
In a wide-ranging interview with MLSsoccer.com that touched on the futures of Cyle Larin, Dom Dwyer and some of Orlando’s younger players, Budalic revealed there is a lot bubbling just below the surface.
The team certainly created plenty of salary cap space with the players who won’t be back in 2018, but does the general manager actually quantify this as a major rebuild?
“I think that’s fair to say,” Budalic said. “It’s a transition period for us and an opportunity to build the squad more in the vision we have for it. I would expect anywhere from eight to 12 new players. It makes me nervous, but I hope it makes [the fans] happy.
“We are optimistic we’ll have a few finalized before Christmas. With others, they are under contract and you have to wait until the [transfer] window opens [in January] to see how available they are. It’s an ongoing process. You establish your needs and then set your priorities. You divide it up into pieces that way and set your action plan based on those priorities.”
Orlando's Cyle Larin and Dom Dwyer have been prolific in MLS, but their long-term futures with the club are up in the air. / USA Today Sports Images
“I would say it helps by having the cap space to add new players,” Budalic added. “But it also hinders because you need to attain those key pieces before you can really make final decisions on the supplementary pieces. We have a solid foundation with the core group we have now, and we need to fill the needs around those players, specifically a No. 10, a second striker or a wide player, and a couple of other positions in the midfield, as well as at the back.”
Two of the biggest offseason issues involve strikers Larin – who has announced his desire to move to Europe next year – and Dwyer, who is out of contract after his blockbuster trade to City last summer.
“We’re well aware of [Cyle’s] ambitions to go to Europe and we’ll support those aspirations with him,” Budalic said. “We’ve received offers for him in the past and we expect to receive offers this offseason. If there are any opportunities he’d like to pursue and they make sense for us, then it’s something we’re prepared to do.
“As far as being prepared for his departure, I think we always have, in every position on the field, a target list of players we would pursue should we need to replace any players. So I feel we’d be in a position to replace any player that gets sold this offseason.”
With Dwyer, the question hinges on getting the numbers right for a long-term deal.
“Definitely,” Budalic confirmed. “We’ve had several conversations back and forth with his agent and we’re optimistic both sides want to get a deal done and it will be completed.”
The Orlando front office chief also sees MLS casting its net further afield, and attracting players still in the prime of their careers, as well as grabbing a bigger share of up-and-coming youngsters.
Orlando City general manager Niki Budalic (above right with Orlando CEO Alex Leitao) has been handed the task of overseeing the club's roster reconstruction following the departure of a number of key veterans. / Courtesy of Orlando City SC
“I think the interest has always been there, but that interest has heightened in the last couple of years with the greater exposure, the growth of the league and the ability to attract younger players,” Budalic explained. “It helps in the ability to attract players from smaller markets and convince them MLS is a good launching pad to a top league in Europe or convincing them this is a place competing with more established leagues where they can still attain their ambitions.
“And [it attracts] younger players as well, like [Albert] Rusnak at Salt Lake and [Miguel] Almiron at Atlanta. We have the ability to attract players from different markets both to enhance their career and also to establish themselves on the global market.”
While a large part of Orlando’s work is in bringing in new players, Budalic says the current crop of younger players will have a bigger role to play in future, especially academy-reared starlet Pierre da Silva, who spent time training with Benfica in Portugal last week and will be with Stoke City this week.
“We have several younger players who we are optimistic will step up and contribute much more in 2018,” said the Lions’ GM. “That’s one reason we left so much [roster] room open, so their path to the first team is that much closer. Pierre showed well in USL last year as well as Richie Laryea, who also had the opportunity to contribute towards the end of 2017, and a few others as well.”
When it comes to who City has on its radar, Budalic is playing his cards closest to his chest, especially when it comes to replacing that large playmaking hole left by Kaká. However, he does provide several hints.
“I can’t tell you specifically, but honestly there is not one in particular but several,” he explained. “Of course, the attacking players get more attention but we have a few experienced players [in mind] that I think would make a really big difference. If you can find one of those, they give you a launching pad to build off, and that would be the priority in the middle of the field.
“With the amount of scouting we do, there are also new players that pop up and make you re-think your strategy – a few guys that can come in and really make an impact, not only in your team but also in the league.”