Orlando City SC's offseason sits preciously – quite nicely, honestly – at the intersection of big change and crucial continuity. It’s a difficult balance.
There are large swaths of Orlando’s enterprise that retain comfortable familiarity. The front office remains the same, as does the coaching staff, led by manager Oscar Pareja. The entire defensive core, from goalkeeper through defensive midfield, returns as well, leaving a strong portion of a roster that has made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
But things are different with the Lions in a big way. There was an ownership change (Wilf family) in the summer, and with it came new budgets and possibilities. New club records for incoming and outgoing transfers were set, while a global star said his goodbye to Florida.
New opportunities do provide new (minor) problems, of course. Such is the duality of transfer negotiations.
“Yeah, the market was reacting ‘Well this team has new money,’” EVP of soccer operations and general manager Luiz Muzzi told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh. “But it’s not the same thing when we’re trying to sell, you know? It’s about ‘Oh there’s no revenue because of COVID, we still don’t have money.’ But when we’re trying to buy? They make it seem like there’s no COVID.”
Orlando have completed quite a bit of buying and selling this winter.
How Kara, Torres fit
Orlando on Thursday made official the acquisition of striker Ercan Kara from Rapid Vienna on a Designated Player deal, after transferring Daryl Dike to English Championship side West Bromwich Albion for a club-record $9.5 million a month ago.
They also moved on from Nani, who has since signed with Italian Serie A side Venezia, while adding U22 Initiative midfielder Cesar Araujo and their crown jewel of the offseason: Uruguay international Facundo Torres as a Young DP from Peñarol.
“I’d say [Torres is] in the top three most exciting young players not just in Uruguay, but in all of South America," Muzzi said. "You have Julian Alvarez from River Plate, who is moving to Manchester City, maybe one or two Brazilians who are showing up well. We’re really excited about Facundo.”
Peñarol has a decorated history of producing top-level talents and have exported several players to MLS, most notably Uruguay internationals Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez to LAFC. In recent times they also produced Real Madrid's Federico Valverde, Benfica's Darwin Nunez and Manchester United's Facundo Pellistri.
Orlando and Peñarol started talks fairly quickly after new ownership officially arrived in Orlando last July, giving the front office a deeper budget and ambitions to revamp the attack. With such a high-level talent, talks were complicated and uneasy.
“The deal was dead like two or three times,” Muzzi said. “The parties got out of the room more than once.”
Eventually, Torres' deal got over the line. In addition to already having 10 caps with La Celeste, the 21-year-old accrued 16 goals and 15 assists in 71 appearances with Peñarol, leading them to the 2021 Liga Profesional de Primera División title.
“It took a long time, it took a lot of the will of the player. He wanted to come," Muzzi said. "He loves Peñarol, there’s no doubt about that, but he made an effort to come. He felt this is the right move in his career, that was very positive.”
Things were more straightforward in the case of Kara.
Kara’s contract with Rapid Vienna was set to expire this coming summer, giving the center forward and Orlando leverage to get a deal done now because he could have signed a pre-contract and left for free. Orlando paid, in the words of Muzzi, a “nominal” transfer fee to get the transfer done immediately.
“It’s been a long search, we had a lot going into finding that kind of player. We knew, at some point, we were going to lose Daryl,” Muzzi said. “We couldn’t just wait for it to happen to start moving. We thought Ercan was the best fit for us. He’s a physical player with technical skill, the combination he can bring to the team is an excellent fit.”
That will be it for DPs, as attacking midfielder Mauricio Pereyra was re-signed and will occupy the other DP spot. There was speculation that Pereyra could be bought down, but Muzzi confirmed the trio of Torres, Kara and Pereyra will be Orlando's DPs.
Orlando have another U22 Initiative spot open which they intend to fill, alongside midfielders Andres Perea and Araujo, the latter of whom has been with the Uruguayan youth national teams.
Kara and Torres, though, are the key additions for OCSC. They also have big shoes to fill. Rosters evolve constantly and just because a new center forward and winger are arriving as key ones depart, it’s never a like-for-like replacement.
Dike & Nani departures
After Dike starred during a loan stint to Barnsley last winter and spring, Orlando knew an eventual move was inevitable.
That inevitability became reality very quickly in Europe’s January transfer window, with West Brom sealing a $9.5 million deal to acquire the 21-year-old US men's national team forward from Orlando.
“There were a lot of clubs interested, there were a lot of talks and a lot of clubs wanting to do different things,” Muzzi said. “Talking together with the player, the agent, the club, we talked about it all. When we got to West Brom, it all made sense. They’re a Premier League-level club, they’re just playing the Championship. They have Daryl’s old coach at Barnsley, so that was a good fit. Then at the end of the day, the money was right for us. It all made sense.
“We don’t want to put brakes on a player’s career, so it all made sense.”
Dike is among a few key players departing from Orlando's attack, including Chris Mueller to Scottish Premiership side Hibernian on a free transfer. Though perhaps none had a bigger impact than Portuguese star Nani; Orlando declined their former captain's contract option for 2022.
The 35-year-old signed with Orlando in 2019 and helped usher in a culture change, leading Orlando to the playoffs for the first time in club history in 2020 and back again last year. He had 28 goals and 23 assists in 77 appearances.
Nani departs Orlando in the highest regard.
”Nani delivered on everything he said he was going to give us,” Muzzi said. “I remember talking to him three years ago in Portugal: He absolutely delivered. He was hungry, he wanted to win, he wanted to make the club better – everything. He’s still that kind of player. He still wants to conquer the world. Nani will always have a place in our ring of honor, per se. He was so important for us, helped us grow. It was just time to move on, the end of a cycle. It’s normal, he knows that.”
It’s been a transformational offseason for Orlando, with a good blend of continuity to help accommodate an era of change.
They’re not done yet – Muzzi teased another signing or two – but they’ll certainly have a new look and aura in 2022. Even if the playoff expectations remain the same.
“We need to gel, it’s not automatic,” Muzzi admits. “But it’s different and exciting.”