MIAMI – With MLS expansion side Inter Miami CF making headlines at the Soccerex convention this week in Miami, their nascent Florida rivals are looking at an offseason overhaul.
It was just a few short years ago that Orlando City SC were the league’s hotly-anticipated newcomers. The Lions were represented at the global soccer business conference, too, albeit in more understated fashion, as they move into an offseason that’s more about picking up the pieces than making bold statements of intent.
“We had a bad season, obviously,” general manager Niki Budalic told MLSsoccer.com on Friday after a campaign in which Orlando finished in last place in the Eastern Conference with an 8-22-4 record and league-worst -31 goal differential. “We had the opportunity to think about the offseason earlier. We’ve put in place a plan now to start implementing, so we’re in that process and we’re starting again. We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to do everything that we want to accomplish.”
Budalic was at Marlins Park to unveil a partnership with Bundesliga club VfL Wolfsburg alongside Felix Welling, Wolfsburg's Head of Corporate Development. It’s the Lions’ fourth such international alliance, and Orlando could well reap tangible benefits in the form of incoming loan players, whether from Wolfsburg or their Brazilian affiliate Club Atletico Paranaense.
The Germans sounds quite eager to build strong ties across the Atlantic, in both on- and off-field terms.
“We have a lot of talented players who are on the verge of going into the Bundesliga, but they need some development and some other things to see while they’re on their way to be professional players,” said Welling at the announcement.
The challenge for Budalic, head coach James O’Connor and the rest of the Lions' brain trust would be making space in their salary budget to accommodate any loan arrivals from abroad. The same goes for other newcomers, as they seek to upgrade a roster featuring several high-profile players locked into hefty contract numbers for 2019, including the Designated Player trio of Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan and Josue Colman.
“Definitely,” said Budalic. “When you talk about some of our TAM and DP players, those players were [already] brought in. But we have a lot of flexibility on the back end of our roster and in the middle of our roster. I think that we have plenty of flexibility to make the changes that we want to make.”
He added that the Lions have already compiled a shortlist of transfer targets overseas while also exploring the possibility of trades within MLS.
“Right now, given the time of year, a lot of discussions are happening within the league with regards to trades,” said Budalic. “But we have targets that we’ve already identified outside the league and we’ll have alternatives depending on how it plays out.”
Asked about Orlando’s tactical and stylistic vision for 2019, Budalic emphasized O’Connor’s adaptability as a coach.
“He wants to have a balance between being able to keep the ball and being able to stretch teams,” he said. “It’s definitely a front-foot type of approach and it’s just a matter of finding the pieces that best complement what we have in order to accomplish what he wants.”
Chemistry and mentality also look like pressing priorities for the Lions as they seek to mend the psychological damage of a campaign as dispiriting as this year’s.
“100 percent, and that’s where we try to identify players that can meet those challenges,” said Budalic. “It comes with leadership, an aspect of it comes with experience, but more importantly it’s identifying players that will rise to that challenge.”