Orlando City players have just begun a months-long stretch of offseason rest. But for director of scouting Ricardo Moreira, preparation for the 2020 season has already begun.
It began, in fact, in the spring. That’s when Moreira first began to lay the groundwork for the team’s offseason moves this winter. At the time, he was watching six to eight games a day, studying and compiling a variety of player targets for the Lions.
Most people, Moreira said, assume recruiting only takes place in the offseason. In reality, it’s a year-round venture that involves traveling around the world, watching hundreds of games from every major league and keeping a database of more than 5,000 players readily available.
“We do our research so that we have as many options as possible,” Moreira said. “We have a lot of players ready. If a player left tomorrow, we already have 10 players lined up to take their place.”
For Moreira and Orlando City executive vice president for soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, the 2019 season served only as a foundation for what’s to come for the Lions. Through both player and coaching selections, the team now looks to build extensively in the offseason.
Although the team’s search for its newest head coach will grab the most attention, Moreira’s work behind the scenes will redefine what Orlando City looks like next season.
“I think it’s a good roster, and I think it can get better,” Muzzi said. “In MLS, it’s not like you can make all the changes at once. I think that you look at the pieces we brought in this year, I think that we are in a very good spot to get better.”
Moreira now faces his first coaching change in his tenure at Orlando City. After building a team with James O’Connor during the past year, Moreira will now look to fulfill the personnel needs of a completely different manager.
Muzzi and Moreira said they gave O’Connor everything he asked for in terms of player selection. Now, the challenge will be to provide that same adaptability to a new coach with a new style and approach.
“It’s always tricky, but it comes down to the culture of the coach,” Moreira said. “Myself and the department, we try to adapt ourselves to the idea of the coach. Basically we respond to everything that he wants to bring in. We have a plan, we have our own beliefs in players and performances, but in the end it’s responding to the coach’s wishes.”
Although a new coach will bring new tactics — particularly an aggressive offensive focus, which Muzzi has emphasized as a necessity for the new manager — Moreira said the culture of the club’s recruiting will remain consistent. When he talks about the culture of the club, Moreira cites a famous Vince Lombardi quote: “The will to win is not nearly so important as the will to prepare to win.”
This mentality is a driving force behind the character of players he looks to recruit. Tesho Akindele is the best example of how this approach paid off for Orlando City in 2019.
In 2018, the striker was facing a slow fade in both minutes and production at FC Dallas. But Moreira and his team identified a workhorse mentality in Akindele they valued above goal production.
The Lions snatched up Akindele on a $150,000 salary, and the striker went on to have a resurgent 10-goal season, his best in MLS. Those 10 goals made up almost a quarter of Orlando City’s total production in the 2019 season, placing Akindele only two goals behind Nani on the team’s offensive leaderboard.
His performance is the clearest illustration of what Moreira is hoping to achieve through rigorous recruitment.
“I know the fans, they care about the expensive players, they want to see the numbers, but all that matters is performance,” Moreira said. “If the guy’s gonna bring us something that we need technically and tactically, it doesn’t matter where he’s coming from, it doesn’t matter the price, it doesn’t matter if the guy is famous or not.”
Although Moreira doesn’t prioritize players’ price tags, Orlando City is a team that is traditionally willing to shell out for designated players. Nani came at a price just under $2.5 million this year, delivering in turn a team-leading 12 goals and 10 assists.
Nani made an impact from the start for the Lions. Yet when it comes to scouting for 2020, Moreira said that the star doesn’t factor into the way that the team builds its roster.
“We learn a lot from him in terms of how competitive he is,” Moreira said. “He played in the most competitive tournaments, he won everything. But building a roster, it doesn’t matter for me who’s already on the team. We’re not gonna build a team around him. He’s a great player, but he’s part of the team.”
Nani might not factor into Moreira’s recruiting plan, but one player does stand out as a team-changer to Moreira — Mauricio Pereyra.
Moreira had tracked Pereyra’s career for several years, following him throughout his seven-season stint in Russia. The physicality and aggression that the slight midfielder showcased in the Russian Premier League offered a balance of force and finesse that Moreira hoped to capitalize on as soon as he became available.
Pereyra’s midseason acquisition gave the midfielder only a brief opportunity to showcase what he could bring to the club, but he still managed to deliver, notching three assists in six appearances. Moreira sees the midfielder as an essential piece to mold the rest of the roster around.
“The way that he can move between lines, the way that he can break lines, I think he’s a guy that you technically build the team around,” Moreira said. “He’s the guy who will help you keep possession, he’ll dictate the pace of the game. He has the ability to dictate how your team plays.”
Over time, Moreira has developed his own system of analyzing and rating players based off a technique developed by Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo — known in most soccer circles by his nickname Monchi — with Sevilla FC. But Moreira is always looking to refine and improve his approach to scouting.
A former sports lawyer with an MBA, Moreira is keen on education, traveling to workshops several times each year. He’s currently studying for coaching license courses — not because he aims to be a coach, but to learn the game from a different perspective.
Moreira is focused on doing everything possible to achieve his goal of assembling a winning team for the Lions. Although the process is complicated, he favors spending intelligently, not extravagantly, to build a winning culture in Orlando.
“It’s challenging, but that’s the beauty of scouting,” Moreira said. “Let them make the big signing, let them spend $20 million. I’m sure we’re spending less money, but we can get better players. We can build around a culture and create that success.”