The start of Orlando City SC's offseason came with three easily identifiable indicators that signaled big change was on the horizon:
- Head coach James O'Connor entered his first offseason with the club;
- Ditto for Luiz Muzzi and his recent introduction to the Lions' front office;
- The team finished 2018 second-bottom in the league while setting a new record for most goals conceded in a season.
The mix could only point in one direction: An offseason overhaul.
Outside of hiring Muzzi, Orlando made one of their biggest moves yet on Thursday when the club announced the sale of star midfielder Yoshi Yotun to Liga MX's Cruz Azul for a reported fee of $4 million. It wasn't the club's first player departure of the offseason — far from it — but it's the one that turned heads: Wait, Orlando sold Yotun for how much?
It's a move that unlocks the possibilities for the moves that Muzzi, O'Connor and Co. are planning this winter.
Orlando declined contract options or traded several starters, including Jonathan Spector, Scott Sutter, Joe Bendik, Chris Schuler, PC, Mohamed El-Munir and Amro Tarek; They acquired younger players in Joao Moutinho, Tesho Akindele and Danilo Acosta, as well signing Greg Ranjitsingh, Kyle Smith and, ostensibly the player they hope will help replace Yotun: Ecuadorian midfielder Jhegson Sebastian Mendez.
Now, armed with the contract space and allocation money from the Yotun move, the Lions have even more room to maneuver than before.
Matt Doyle took a crack at taking OCSC's temperature, before they signed Mendez.
Orlando City's books were ugly cap-wise but should be relatively flexible now. Need the 3 highly paid guys who severely under-delivered last year – Sane, Rosell, Colman – to play like they're supposed to, tho, or they'll have another lost season.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) December 27, 2018
Current 2-deep (IMO) is here. pic.twitter.com/G80FFSt6Lg
Past the X's and O's, what Lions supporters no doubt noticed was how the Yotun deal transpired very differently to the one that involved star striker Cyle Larin just 11 months ago. Larin, like Yotun, had suitors abroad. Larin, like Yotun, appeared intent on a move.
In OCSC's first go-around, negotiations and actions turned ugly, as Larin attempted to push through a move to Besiktas on a free transfer after bids were rejected over the summer. He started training with the Turkish giants in the winter and the months-long saga finally ended when Besiktas and Orlando agreed a fee at the end of January.
This time, when rumors broke that Cruz Azul were interested in Yotun and Yotun was interested in Cruz Azul, things were handled differently.
Within a week, without any public bickering or ill-wishes, Yotun's transfer was agreed, signed and announced. Sure, it might hurt in the interim to lose a player of his caliber -- and the language the club made public wasn't exactly over-joyous in tone -- but they still managed to leverage the situation to benefit the club.
"We worked closely with [Yotun] and his agent to keep him in Orlando, including offering new contract options,” Muzzi said in a statement. “Ultimately, the player had his mind set on a move to Mexico, and we reached the best possible outcome for both him and the club."
Orlando have a long way to go in their 2019 roster creation and the rebuild might not bear fruit right away. But the club have already taken a few steps in the right direction, even if it meant transferring arguably their best player.