Jason Kreis’ first full season in charge of Orlando City started better than most expected, and finished worst than most expected.
The Lions were cruising into May atop the standings and riding one of the best starts in MLS history. The new downtown stadium was a fortress, and visiting teams seemingly had no chance of leaving with points in hand. But then it all started to unravel in May. Orlando went winless in six straight, wins at home became far from certainties, Cyle Larin stopped scoring and so the team’s offense went with it.
Summer acquisitions such as Dom Dwyer and Yoshi Yotun couldn’t help the club reserve course, as Kreis’ side finished out the season with just two wins in its final 15 games and just 21 points over their final 27 games after picking up 18 in their first seven. The extended drought saw Orlando finish 10th in the Eastern Conference on 39 points, the club’s lowest total in three MLS seasons. Kreis and the front office will have their work cut out for them as they head into 2018 still looking for the first playoff berth in club history.
Earlier this month the Lions declined contract options on eight players — Josh Saunders, Seb Hines, Conor Donovan, Antonio Nocerino, Servando Carrasco, Dillon Powers, Giles Barnes and Hadji Barry — while the contracts of both Kevin Alston and team captain Kaká expired. The 35-year-old Kaká, who has been the highest paid player in MLS over the last three years, announced at the end of the season that he wouldn’t renew his contract with the club, freeing up a lot of money and, most importantly, a Designated Player spot for Orlando City.
How the Lions use that now-free DP slot will be a focus of the club throughout the offseason, in addition to strengthening the backline and figuring out what will happen with Larin, who publicly announced his desire to leave MLS and test himself in Europe.
Here’s where the rest of the roster stands right now, and what the Lions might be looking to improve this offseason:
Goalkeepers: Joe Bendik, Earl Edwards Jr., Mason Stajduhar
Orlando won’t spend much time focusing on the goalkeeper position this offseason. Bendik has solidified himself as one of the league’s top shot-stoppers over the last two seasons with Orlando and will go into 2018 as a lock for the starting gig. Expect them, though, to bring in another goalkeeper to battle in preseason with Edwards Jr. for the backup job. It won’t be Stajduhar, the 19-year-old Homegrown Player who announced last week the beginning of his battle with bone cancer.
Defenders: Jonathan Spector, Scott Sutter, Donny Toia, Tommy Redding, Victor “PC” Giro, Jose Aja, Rafael Ramos
Spector and Sutter were two of the more quietly underrated signings of the MLS season, with both playing significant and strong roles for the Lions in 2017. Spector brought some much-needed leadership and organization to the backline, while Sutter played a lot of minutes and contributed at both ends of the field.
The bigger issue Kreis had with his backline was being able to find a solid and consistent center back pairing. He was forced into a handful of different pairings, and a new one almost every week through the final few months, as none of Redding, Aja, Hines, or Pereira was able to lock down a starting spot next to Spector. Redding still has a boatload of potential as a Homegrown Player and rising star in the U.S. youth national team pool, but whether or not he, or even Aja, can get past the clumsy mistakes will be important for the Lions in 2018.
Midfielders: Will Johnson, Richie Laryea, Yoshimar Yotún, Cristian Higuita, Tony Rocha, Pierre Da Silva
The larger chunk of work for Orlando City will happen in the midfield. Losing both Kaká and Antonio Nocerino opens up not only a lot of cap space, but minutes as well. Yotún returns as the only lock for starting minutes in 2018. The No. 1 focus will be on finding a young, attack-minded No. 10 to lead the offense, something Orlando has desperately needed, especially after trading Kevin Molino to Minnesota before the season, essentially eliminating most of the team’s midfield creativity.
Yotún on the left side of the midfield, possibly Higuita or an outside candidate playing as the holding midfielder, Johnson, who was has a strong trust from Kreis, or another outside candidate playing on the right side of the midfield, and then a new No. 10 up top is the vision that Orlando is looking at right now.
Forwards: Cyle Larin, Dom Dwyer, Carlos Rivas
Larin will be another big focus, but Orlando isn’t rushing into anything regarding selling the Canadian international, who has 43 goals in three seasons. Larin is ready to leave MLS for Europe, but following a decline in goals in 2017 and a DUI arrest to go along with that, Larin’s value isn’t as high as it can be and Orlando City will only be willing to sell if the situation makes sense for all parties.
Locking up Dwyer long-term is also a focus heading into 2018, and figuring out what to do with the talented-but-frustrating Carlos Rivas will be another.
With or without Larin, the Lions will need to find a little bit more depth to cover them at the forward position, and a Giles Barnes return shouldn’t be ruled out. The Jamaican forward was the only Orlando City player to feature in all 34 games this season, but his nearly $800,000 per year contract was too high for the actual production he brought, and Orlando could look into bringing him back at a significantly reduced price.