Jason Kreis just went all-in with Orlando City SC.
The Lions’ winter of win-now took a huge leap forward Monday, when the club acquired Justin Meram in a trade with Columbus Crew SC and moved closer to acquiring talented former Sporting Kansas City holding midfielder Uri Rosell from Sporting CP.
Orlando sent $300,000 in Targeted Allocation Money for the 2018 season, $450,000 in 2019 TAM, $300,000 in General Allocation Money and an international spot to Crew SC for Meram, who becomes the third significant offensive piece acquired by Orlando this winter.
Paul Tenorio reported later Monday that Orlando are in the “final stages” of landing Rosell from Sporting. A source confirmed the report to MLSsoccer.com, adding that Orlando have a deal in place to send TAM and the No. 6 spot in the allocation order to FC Dallas in exchange for the No. 1 spot that they’ll then use to sign Rosell.
The moves are the latest in an incredibly busy offseason in Orlando, who are undergoing a major makeover as they look to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history.
Gone are Kaká, Giles Barnes, Antonio Nocerino, Carlos Rivas, Tommy Redding and, presumably, Cyle Larin, who, according to a Pro Soccer USA report, is in the process of finalizing a transfer to Besiktas. Replacing them are Meram, (likely) Rosell, back-to-back MLS assist king Sacha Kljestan, acquired in a trade from the New York Red Bulls, and 19-year-old Paraguayan attacker Josue Colman, who signed a Young Designated Player deal earlier this month.
The changes, along with the re-signing of summer 2017 trade acquisition Dom Dwyer, leave Orlando with a fearsome front six. It’s not hard to imagine the Lions playing in a 4-2-3-1 with Dwyer up top, Kljestan tucked behind him, Meram and Colman on the wings and Rosell and Yoshimar Yotun at defensive mid. That’s a talented group, and one that head coach Kreis, who told MLSsoccer.com after completing the Colman deal earlier this month that he feels this winter has been his first chance to build the roster the way he wants, will finally view as his own.
Kreis and his coaching staff are more comfortable with their team now than they were in 2017, but their moves this winter also reveal an undercurrent of pressure in Orlando. The Lions are spending big on their new signings, completely tying their future to their new crop. It’s pretty clearly playoffs or bust for Kreis, who came under fire last year – his first full season at the helm – as Orlando limped to 10th in the East following a red-hot start.
“I think it’s very fair to say that we’re putting all of our chips in the middle of the pot,” Kreis told MLSsoccer.com over the phone Monday night. “I think it’s very fair to say that we believe in all of the acquisitions we’ve made this offseason, we’ve worked extremely hard to try to put together a team that can compete consistently and we believe that we’ve done a good job of that so far. We have a couple more pieces that we think are right around the corner, and if we can manage through those couple pieces, I think we’ll feel that we put together a team that should be competing consistently for years to come.”
Kreis and Orlando should feel good about their winter, but, apart from signing Colman, most of their big moves have been made with an eye on the short term. They traded a promising youngster in Redding for the 32-year-old Kljestan, then signed him to an extension that added an extra year onto his contract. They sent a staggering amount of allocation money to SKC to acquire Dwyer last summer, then re-upped him to a deal this winter that, according to sources, will pay him $1.5 million in 2018. On Monday, they spent another huge haul of allocation money to land the 29-year-old Meram.
Kljestan, Dwyer and Meram are talented, proven, productive attackers. But their profiles – somewhat older, somewhat expensive and with no serious potential for a sell-on – are at odds with where the rest of the league seems to be headed. Where other teams are using their new TAM to almost exclusively sign younger players like Colman, Orlando, for the most part, are spending theirs to acquire and re-sign MLS vets to pricey deals.
That’s a conscious strategy for Kreis and his staff, but it does carry serious risk. The amount of money they’ve sent (or will send) to Kansas City, Columbus and Dallas has them close to maxed out on allocation. Kreis said Monday that he expects to use the full $2.8 million of new, discretionary TAM this year, but, considering their current roster, that might only mean another signing or two. That’ll be an issue if any of Orlando’s more important players get hurt or fall flat.
That’s not to say that the moves won’t pan out. If their key pieces stay healthy and Colman makes good on his promise, the Lions should be lethal in the attack. Joe Bendik is coming off an excellent season in net, and Yotun and Rosell will greatly help the backline, which Kreis hinted will also be reinforced before the start of the season. They’re certainly in a better spot now than they were in October, and they should have a good shot at making the playoffs this season.
But their margins are thin. Depth is an issue, and an injury or two could derail their entire year. They’ve spent a huge chunk of allocation money and will likely have a hard time fitting another big signing on the budget. Kljestan, Meram and Dwyer might take Orlando to the promised land, but it’s possible the Lions will be left in a lurch. If they stumble again, Kreis might not get another shot to make things right.
His chips are in. Now Kreis must get the most out of Orlando’s hand.