ORLANDO – Since they joined Major League Soccer in 2015, Orlando City have experience more than their fair share of turmoil. Coaching changes, front office makeovers and roster overhauls have been the unfortunate norm in Central Florida, as the Lions have cycled through several different regimes during their playoff-less first four years in MLS.
This winter, Orlando made yet another switch at the top. Longtime FC Dallas executive Luiz Muzzi joined the club in December as their new executive vice president of soccer operations. He’s taking over for former GM Niki Budalic, who was dismissed a month after the club closed their forgettable 2018 season.
Muzzi inherits a bit of a mess. As he put it in an interview with MLSsoccer.com on Monday, Orlando undertook an “all the chips in” overhaul last winter. After a year and a half of tough results, Budalic and former head coach Jason Kreis finally had enough room following the 2017 season to remake the roster to their liking. They used just about all that space, spending significantly to acquire Sacha Kljestan, Justin Meram, Josue Colman and Lamine Sane, among others.
The moves didn’t take. Kreis was dismissed after a wildly volatile first 15 games, and new head coach James O’Connor failed to improve with his predecessor’s squad. Orlando went 2-13-3 in all competitions under O’Connor, finishing the year with the second-worst record and worst goal differential in the league.
The terrible results led to more turnover this winter. Orlando offloaded Jonathan Spector, Scott Sutter and Mohamed El-Munir and sold star midfielder Yoshi Yotun to Mexican club Cruz Azul for a reported transfer fee of $4 million. So far, their replacements have been lower-profile. Muzzi doesn’t have the cap space to spend like Budalic and Kreis did last winter, meaning it’ll take some time – and require some patience from supporters – until Orlando can truly turn things around.
“It’s not going to be overnight,” Muzzi said. “It’s not going to be that we immediately have all these pieces in place. But I think as long as people see that there’s a plan and that we’re moving in a consistent way, maybe not overhauling the whole thing again, but this is why we’re doing A and B and C, then we should be OK. … So yeah, patience is important. I don’t know how much patience people have or still have, but I’m asking them to give us a chance, see what we have, there’s a plan in place and look at all the things that are being done to get somewhere.”
In the short-term, that plan involves getting younger and attempting to correct a defense that conceded an all-time league-worst 74 goals in 2018. Muzzi already acquired fullbacks Danilo Acosta, 21, and Joao Moutinho, 20, from within the league this winter and signed 21-year-old defensive midfielder Sebastian Mendez from Ecuadorian club Independiente del Valle on Dec. 28. Muzz said that more defensive reinforcements are on the way, though he mentioned that he feels the club, who parted ways with former starter Joe Bendik and backup Earl Edwards, have three solid goalkeepers already on the roster in Adam Grinwis, Greg Ranjitsingh and Mason Stajduhar.
Orlando are particularly high on Mendez, who, despite his young age, already has five caps with the Ecuador national team. Muzzi thinks his arrival will help ease the sting of losing Yotun, who wanted the move to Cruz Azul even after Orlando offered him a new, lucrative contract that would’ve paid him more than double his 2018 salary of $600,000. Muzzi confirmed that the Lions will be able to convert $750,000 of Yotun’s transfer fee into General Allocation Money, the maximum allowed by the league for sales.
“We got to a good point with Cruz Azul, because if Cruz Azul offered a bag of balls and some cones guess what, he would’ve been coming back,” said Muzzi. “But it gave us some allocation, gave us some cash that we could do other moves like bringing Mendez. And he’s a guy that I think once people start seeing Mendez, they’ll quickly forget about Yotun.”
Orlando will continue to look for young players like Mendez, whose acquisition didn’t require any Targeted Allocation Money, in the future. Muzzi mentioned FC Dallas’ Michael Barrios and Carlos Gruezo, both of whom were acquired at young ages for non-prohibitive amounts, as models for the profile of player that he would try to acquire.
They’ll also look to get more out of their academy, which has yet to produce an impact MLS player. Muzzi feels the Central Florida region has enough talent and the club has the necessary infrastructure with Orlando City B in USL to produce solid pros – they just need to figure out how to get it done.
In many ways, Muzzi feels that’s the larger story with Orlando City. The club have the downtown stadium and rabid fanbase needed to be a success. They matter in their market. Their ceiling is high. They just need to create a long-term plan and have the patience to execute it.
“It’s a great opportunity here,” he said. “You look at everything that the city has, the stadium and the community and the support and everything, and you feel like Orlando should’ve been able to do a little more. And you feel like, man, maybe I can help on that. It’s a great, great challenge.”