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Q&A: Orlando City GM Niki Budalić upbeat about player spending, vision of club and more

Orlando City GM Niki Budalic (left) shakes hands with new coach James O'Connor after O'Connor's introductory press conference at Orlando City Stadium. (Jordan Culver-Orlando Sentinel)

Orlando City (7-18-4, 25 points) enters its match against FC Dallas at the bottom of the Eastern Conference Table. Orlando City GM Niki Budalić spoke with Pro Soccer USA reporter Jordan Culver about a wide range of issues facing the club. 

Check out highlights of the conversation:

Pro Soccer USA: As the club’s general manager, what are you hoping to get from the final five matches of the season?

Niki Budalić: “You know, I think what most important is trying to see… look at it from a long-term perspective. Instead of focusing on each individual result and each individual player, just kind of recalibrating the vision and the plan, and how the pieces that we have in place now fit into that plan so that we’re able to make decisions in the right frame of mind.”

Pro Soccer USA: In your mind, what is the vision of this team now? You have a new coach that came in midseason, what’s the vision for Orlando City?

Budalić: “When you have a coaching change and you have to transition into a new technical staff, of course, the plan is to try to have success the existing players and just have a continuation. With every new coaching staff, there’s going to be tweaks. We hired James because we thought he fit the philosophy and the identity of the club. So, of course, it’s something that he needs time to implement. I think it’s not just a personnel thing. It’s a period of time to be able to build on what we have and we’re always looking to improve. It’s a longer process than just changing players or making a coaching change.”

Pro Soccer USA: It’s been a rough start for coach James O’Connor. Can you still definitely say, “He’s our guy. He’s the man to lead Orlando City?”

Budalić: “James O’Connor is our guy. 100 percent.”

Pro Soccer USA: With that confidence, what are you looking for in terms of the players? Can you still win with the roster you have?

Budalić: “When you ask, “Can you win with the roster we have,” are you implying for the short term – the next five games – or longer term?”

Pro Soccer USA: Long-term.

Budalić: “I think that you go through cycles. I think that every year’s an opportunity to upgrade and improve. Regardless of whether we won or lost this year, you’re always looking to improve the team. On top of that, working in MLS, in a salary cap-structured league, there are decisions that have to be made even if you want to keep players sometimes. Those factors come into play as well.”

Pro Soccer USA: Have you already taken a hard look at what players you want to keep around? Taken a look and said, “This is a player we want to keep for the future?”

Budalić: “That’s a continual process. We’re always looking. We’re reviewing our squad weekly and we’re looking outside of our squad for options to upgrade or replace. It’s a continuing process and you’re always looking at that.”

Pro Soccer USA: That process of looking at players, I’d noticed there was a scouting director position that was posted. What’s the progress on that?

Budalić: “We’re hoping to fill that position shortly.”

Pro Soccer USA: Have you been heavily involved in looking for that new scouting director?

Budalić: “Yes, I’ve been leading that search.”

Pro Soccer USA: Specifically, what are you looking for in a scouting director?

Budalić: “I think it’s part of building out our staffing structure and organizational structure. It was part of our place over the last two years to eventually grow, as the entire league is growing. Becoming more comprehensive and complete. Not just in scouting, but in every fact. You’re looking to see how that fits and what those responsibilities are compared to how the number of employees grows.”

Pro Soccer USA: Are you looking domestically or overseas for the scouting director?

Budalić: “Both. I don’t think we set up a filter that way, that we wanted a domestic guy or a foreign guy. We’re looking for the best candidates. It just depends on how it fits with the skillset that we have with all the other personnel. That, for me, is the most important, but we’ve had a lot of interest, as we always do for every position that opens up with Orlando City. It’s something that we’re hoping to fill shortly.”

Pro Soccer USA: I know the season’s not over yet, but in terms of this season’s roster, what went wrong? What happened that this roster wasn’t as successful as originally planned?

Budalić: “I don’t think it’s one factor. I think when you don’t have success, it’s never going to be based on one thing. I’ll say that with the transition that we had last offseason, with the number of players, it was always going to take some time to build on that. Developing a culture, developing relationships, establishing some leadership in the locker room, building some rapport on the field and all that. I think you can probably look, and it’s been discussed, with some of the issues we’ve had this season with some of the injuries, with players missing, the lack of continuity has contributed to that, for sure. I think we’re in that process now. We’ve been reviewing for quite some time and that’ll continue to be looked at. We’ll come to some conclusions toward the end of the year and at the end of the year, we’ll discuss even more in-depth.”

Pro Soccer USA: There has been criticism about this front office. That the front office is impatient. That they’re distant from the fans. What is your response to that type of criticism – do you even look at that type of criticism?

Budalić: “To be perfectly honest, I don’t think we can let criticism from outside the organization affect our decision making and our plans. Of course, we want to have good relationships with our fans and do everything we can to be connected to the community. That’s very important when you’re establishing a vision and an identity for the club. It needs to all fit together. From that perspective, we’re very conscious of our fans, our community, our sponsors, our front office – everyone. I feel like we’re in this together. But as far as decision-making and how we operate, I think it’s really important to stay focused and try to make decisions that we feel are best to move the club forward.”

Pro Soccer USA: If you had the chance just to address a large group of fans, what would you say to them right now? With the season winding down, the way things have gone, what would you say to the fans of Orlando City?

Budalić: “What I would say is we understand their perspective. We understand the passion they have for this club and this team. We understand the urgency. We understand the demand to improve. I know that James has been a really good leader in trying to establish that demand of expectations. That’s cascading through the organization, as well, in soccer operations. We are working hard to change the situation and we feel confident we’ll get it right.”

Pro Soccer USA: With OCB making its return, the academy seems to be falling into place, do you really feeling like now Orlando City is finally starting to fulfill its vision?

Budalić: “Yeah. I think the reintroduction of OCB, the moving our academy to Monteverde, was something that was part of our longer-term plan for quite some time. We’re very happy to have that opportunity come to fruition now. For sure, it’s something that is maybe not going to make immediate rewards, but for the long-term future of the club, I think it’s imperative and will put us in good stead for the long term.”

Pro Soccer USA: Has there been any movement on the Lake Nona facility? That’s a constant topic of conversation.

Budalić: “I’m not as involved in that, but I know that the front office is really hard on that and I would expect that to be pushed forward very soon.”

Pro Soccer USA: How close are you with James O’Connor? How often do you speak with him, how involved in the day-to-day are you?

Budalić: “Oh, I mean, we speak several times a day. We spend most days together at training. We have numerous meetings. We’re very aligned and tied together with all the operations. It’s not about my team or his team, we’re very united on that.”

Pro Soccer USA: At the end of the day, what are the pieces that are missing from this club right now? If you just take a step back and look, what’s missing that you still need to add?

Budalić: “On what level? From the personnel level or structural level?”

Pro Soccer USA: I can start with a personnel level, and then I’d like to ask about structurally.

Budalić: “On the playing side, like I said earlier, you’re always looking to improve your roster. You’re always trying to be more competitive and improve. You can’t say one specific thing. Tactically, with James and how he wants to play, you’re always going to try to find profiles that are complementary and can help with improving performance on the field. As far as getting into specifics, I would prefer not to say because we’re going through that process now and it’s going to be… we’d like to keep that strategy a little bit more close to us.

“With regards to the structure, yeah I think MLS is growing. You see how the league is expanding it’s becoming more competitive. If you compare it to other clubs in Europe and South America, which, through our relationships and through our exposure and dealings with all of these different clubs, you can see how we’ve closed the gap with regards to growth in the game here. But, of course, there’s ways that we can improve. I think we’re trying to address those with some of the changes we’ve made already and some of the new ways we’re trying to grow on an organizational level, as well. I think, from a facility [standpoint], obviously, we’re looking at improving our training facility, but we’ve got a brand-new stadium. We’ve addressed our academy and our second team. I think, in a lot of ways, we’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes to set the club up to have a little bit more sustained growth and success.”

Pro Soccer USA: In terms of the stadium and the amount of money that Orlando City is capable of spending – it’s expensive to buy a stadium. Has that been something that’s hindered spending in other areas?

Budalić: “If you’re asking me for my perspective, from a personnel side, I’ve seen no effect. I think those are business questions to ask [CEO] Alex [Leitão] in the front office. But, on my side, everything we’ve asked for and all of the support we’ve looked at, we’ve requested, we’ve received. I think if you’re asking how you prioritize spending, that’s different. What steps and how you prioritize what you’re going to invest in, that’s probably how it has its greatest effect, but as far as we’re looking to do to have success on the personnel of the team and the soccer operations, I think we’re more than satisfied with the level of support we got.

Pro Soccer USA: You touched on it a little bit, I was going to ask: As the GM, what do you look to invest in on a player standpoint? Are you looking to invest in the young guys? Are you looking for the stars who are already established? How do you want to see this team invest in players?

Budalić: “I think that’s part of the strategy and that’s something that’s something that crafted by all of us together, including [team owner] Flavio [Augusto da Silva], Alex, James, the coaching staff, all of us. We review that every opportunity we get. Whether that’s during the transfer windows, whether that’s during the monthly meetings we have. It’s not one answer. It’s you have a strategy, you implement the strategy, and then as you go through the season, you readdress, and you tweak. I think it’s a continuing process.”

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