James O'Connor close up
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Stejskal: Contract questions could limit Orlando's offseason potential

After one of the most active winters in MLS yielded miserable results in 2018, Orlando City find themselves in need of another reboot this offseason.

Unfortunately for the Lions, they might not have much room to maneuver.

Several of the highest-paid players from the team that finished 22nd in the league this year have guaranteed contracts for 2019, Orlando GM Niki Budalic told MLSsoccer.com last Friday. Included in that group are Designated Players Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan and Josue Colman, 31-year-old center back Lamine Sane and 31-year-old midfielder Will Johnson. According to the MLS Players Association, their 2018 compensation totaled $3.96 million, roughly 45 percent of Orlando’s entire end-of-season payroll.

Four of those five did not have overly positive 2018 seasons. Dwyer was relatively productive with 13 goals in 26 games, but the rest of the group was largely underwhelming. The lack of production combined with their hefty budget charges could leave Orlando in a tricky spot as they try to improve the roster that finished 2018 with just 28 points and went a miserable 2-12-3 over the second-half of the season.

“It’s hard to say right now [how much there will be], but there will be turnover,” said Budalic. “We’ll do whatever it takes to improve the roster and upgrade positions we feel we can.”

Budalic said his lack of certainty in how much turnover there will be is largely due to Orlando’s budget situation. Sources around MLS elaborated on that point, telling MLSsoccer.com that the Lions will likely need to offload players through trades or transfers for head coach James O’Connor to make big-time additions this winter. If they can move some of their contracts, Orlando should be able to re-tool somewhat significantly. If not, they could bring back a largely similar core group of players in 2019.

“We’re working through different option scenarios and different players on the roster and we’ll have a clearer picture over the coming weeks,” Budalic said.

Budalic said that Orlando hold club options on midfielder Uri Rosell, center back Jonathan Spector and defender/midfielder Carlos Ascues, who was acquired via loan in August. He said that the team is “optimistic” about retaining Ascues for a locked-in loan fee that was agreed to when the club signed him from Peruvian club FBC Melgar over the summer. If he’s brought back, Orlando will have to use Targeted Allocation Money on Ascues next season. Budalic added that Orlando “have the potential” to buydown the contracts of Dwyer, Kljestan or Colman using TAM to sign a new DP.

Neither Budalic nor O’Connor went too in-depth on positional needs for 2019, but it’s clear that the Lions need some upgrades in the back after they conceded an all-time league-worst 74 goals in 2018.

“We’re still sort of going through that process. The best way to answer it is I think when you concede as man goals as we have, that will be an area that we’ll try to be stronger in,” O’Connor told MLSsoccer.com when asked what positions Orlando would target this winter. “People will assume that I’m speaking solely about the defenders, but I’m not. For us, defending transition starts with all the positions and I think there’s a clear idea of what we want to try to do.”

O’Connor has also said that he wants to add depth at striker behind Dwyer this winter. Stefano Pinho was the only natural option behind Dwyer at center forward in 2018; he had just two goals in 595 minutes this year.

Apart from better implementing his defensive principles, O’Connor’s main task this winter will be to instill a new attitude in Orlando. He admitted that the Lions, who suffered through a nine-game losing streak from May 13-July 7 and collected just three points in a 13-game winless run from July 14-Oct. 21, suffered from a lack of confidence after he took over ahead of the club’s July 7 match at LAFC.

Kljestan went a step further in the lead-up to Orlando’s season finale at the New York Red Bulls on Oct. 28, saying that he thought “there are big things that need to be established in this club, which I don’t think can happen over one preseason.” O’Connor said he thinks he has “a great relationship with Sacha” and that he saw “no drama” and “no issues” with his comments. He did, however, repeatedly come back to the idea that Orlando will need to have a much better “mentality” if they want to make the playoffs for the first in club history in 2019.

Some reinforcements this winter wouldn’t hurt, either.  

“We all understand where we are. We all understand what we want,” he said. “I’ve just got to be very intentional to make sure that I get what I want through the course of the offseason and preseason.”

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