ORLANDO, Fla.- Goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. stands to be the biggest beneficiary of the roster cuts announced on Wednesday by Orlando City, who removed nine players from their books after their inaugural MLS season.
Eight of the players departed after the club chose not to exercise their contract options and one – Tony Cascio – was out of contract. While these type of moves are part of any team's offseason, many on the outside were surprised to see starting goalkeeper Tally Hall among those who were not retained.
Truth be told, a substantial reduction was always expected. Orlando City had 31 players on their books because of the rollercoaster 2015 campaign that was plagued by injuries and suspensions, but Hall’s exit, along with that of veteran midfielder Lewis Neal, indicates the Lions will be hard-nosed about all roster decisions as they attempt to become a playoff team in 2016.
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Fans will certainly mourn the departure of the popular keeper, who played 23 games this year but suffered his second knee injury in the space of 14 months in the final home game against New York City FC on Oct. 16. Hall is expected to make a full recovery, but the fact he has a relatively high cap number and the growing maturation of 23-year-old back-up Edwards Jr. were likely factors behind the veteran's release.
Edwards Jr., a UCLA standout, was taken in the third round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft (43rd overall) and impressed the coaching staff throughout the year as Hall’s understudy. He was unlucky to suffer a minor injury of his own in the final month.
All indications are that Edwards Jr. will be given the first chance to win the starting job in 2016, which would help free up salary cap space for Orlando City to add more talent in defense and up front.
The exit of Neal is the other surprising element in the mass exodus, as the former D.C. United midfielder had proved a reliable and versatile piece in Adrian Heath’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, someone who could play in any of the midfield roles. He even took the No. 10 role of Kaká when the influential captain was either injured or suspended, and had success on several occasions, notably in the late-season wins at Chicago and at home vs. New York City.
At 34-years-old, however, Neal's age was something that went against him in the club’s long-term thinking and so was his lack of goalscoring from the midfield. Still, the general consensus from the Lions is that Neal’s ability and intelligence are valuable commodities that could see him picked up by another MLS club.
At the same time, there are also tentative discussions about Neal remaining in Orlando in a different capacity, so fans shouldn’t rule out the possibility of seeing him still involved with the team in 2016 and beyond.
For all of Orlando City's pragmatism, there remains a feeling of loyalty and appreciation for past players who also grew up with the club during its USL PRO days. Former Lions Anthony Pulis and Rob Valentino are both now coaching the USL affiliate, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Neal join the coaching staff in some capacity as well.