SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City’s roster overhaul was in a very different place a month ago.
For a while this offseason, it looked like the Lions’ 2019 roster was going to be a collection of mostly inexperienced players, supplemented by some veterans from last season, which was Orlando City’s worst in MLS.
When asked whether the Lions were in position to be successful this season amid many changes, executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi acknowledged it took the entire offseason to put all the puzzle pieces together. The early snapshot was incomplete.
“If you asked me that same question a month ago, a month and a half ago, it would have been a different answer because we were all over the place trying to find the pieces,” Muzzi told Pro Soccer USA about Orlando City’s roster rebuild. “I think right now, we’re past that point.”
He added the team, with the addition of extra veteran leadership, is in a position to win.
Muzzi said he wanted to make Orlando City a younger team. It’s part of an overall culture shift club wants to implement – and Muzzi, from his time at FC Dallas, knows what proper player development looks like.
“Everybody says the same thing,” Muzzi said. “[Orlando City] is a great franchise with everything. Great fans, great stadium, everything, so why are things not exactly the way they should have been? Nobody can point and say this is why or that’s why or this is why. The franchise has everything to be very successful on the field, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Now the team is younger. The average age of Orlando City’s first 11 offseason signings was 23 years old. Players like young Ecuadorian star Sebas Méndez, U.S. men’s national team-caliber left back Danilo Acostoa, No. 3 overall SuperDraft pick Santiago Patiño and Homegrown signing Benji Michel have joined the young players already on Orlando City’s roster.
The new youngsters are eager to make an impact. Orlando City opens its season at 2:30 on Saturday against NYCFC in Orlando City Stadium.
“I put a in really good year, modesty aside, with my club and also with the national team,” Méndez said. “I wanted to make sure I had better opportunities and it’s nice to know that teams were fighting for my services because I really put a lot of effort into last year.
“Because of God and his decisions and the way he paved things, I’m in Orlando and I’m really happy to be here.”
The experienced young players, like Chris Mueller, Josué Colmán and Danilo Acosta, are hoping to take the next steps in their careers.
“I’ve tried to settle into a new type of role,” said Mueller, who is in his second season. “I just feel a little bit more prepared, in that sense. A little bit more confident and all around just better.
“Just having been here for one year and having so many new guys, I just kind of know how things typically can work around here, you know? Just trying to help a lot of the new college guys that came in. Being a guy that came out of college last year and played a decent amount of games, I think that I can serve those guys well.”
The young players are expected to step in and contribute. For example, Méndez was brought in shortly after the club announced it had sold all-star midfielder Yoshimar Yotún, and Muzzi said Méndez was Yotún’s replacement.
That’s just one example of a spot where a young player will need to step up.
“I don’t really feel pressure,” Colmán said. “I feel like I have short- and long-term goals. We all have them. I’m just trying to enjoy the moment. I’m just trying to live in the moment, of course, knowing that I have a job to do and I have to produce.
“I realize that I’m very blessed. I have the blessing of God that I’m doing what I love to do for a living, so I need to enjoy that and not really feel the pressure. When I do that, things will come.”
Still, even after Muzzi noted he wanted a shift toward younger players, he was still looking for additional veteran leadership. In Muzzi’s words, “a veteran, good, recognizable name that can add not only the field, but also off the field and help everybody out.”
So, the team went out and got Nani. The 32-year-old former Manchester United star was signed on a free transfer from Sporting CP.
He’s already helping everybody out. Club CEO Alex Leitão said when Muzzi and coach James O’Connor said they had an opportunity to get Nani, he knew it was the right move to make.
“That fact that we did the right thing, what actually proved [to] me that we did the right thing, the other day, I was talking with the guys and some players came to me and they mentioned, ‘It seems like he’s been here for two years and not two weeks,’” Leitão said. “The guy, he really came very, very quickly into our club and made himself part of the group.”
Even with Nani and the signing of veteran goalkeeper Brian Rowe, 30, the average age of Orlando City’s new players is about 24 years old. That brings the number of offseason signings for Orlando City up to 13.
“As regards to leadership, I think when you look at the career he’s had, his ability to influence young players, the level of respect that he has in the changing room, the way he lives his life, I think it puts him in a great position to be able to offer advice,” O’Connor said.
Orlando City’s previously-established veterans have taken notice of the impact Nani has had on the team when it comes to mentorship. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who is entering his 10th season in MLS, said players “flock” toward Nani when the accomplished winger starts speaking in the locker room.
Nani isn’t the only experienced leader on the team, but he is the newest one. Players have said cenetberack Lamine Sané, striker Dom Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan and other veterans have all fulfilled leadership rules.
“I think, immediately, when [Nani] walks into the locker room, that almost everybody on the team looks up to him because of what he’s accomplished in his career,” Kljestan said.
“He’s won everything, pretty much, at the highest level. So, when he walks in, guys respect him immediately. Anything he says, everyone’s like, ‘Tell us about your time at Manchester United. Tell us what [former Manchester United manager] Alex Ferguson made you guys be like. What was training like? What was it like playing with Cristiano [Ronaldo] and all these other guys that are also playing at the highest level?
“That part is huge because guys are interested in learning what it took to play at the highest level.”
The mentorship for young players from the top down is different from what Patiño experienced as a member of Orlando City’s academy. Michel also noted things are different, just in that more academy players are getting exposed to the first team.
“It has been really different,” Patiño said. “I remember when I was in the academy, I don’t think many players would train or have friendly games with the first team. Now, it’s something that we see here often. Every game we’ve had so far [in preseason] we always have five, six academy players and two or three play, which is really important for them and for us as a team.
“We get to be with them, and we get to help them and for them, getting that pro environment is important. It has changed a lot, and part of that is because of James and Luiz and it has helped the program.”
It all goes back to Orlando City’s culture shift, Muzzi said.
“You always have to work in a way that everybody is aligned and has the same goals and we’re doing something because we’re doing something, not because somebody decided and nobody talked about it,” Muzzi said.