As Orlando City‘s season came to a close on Sunday night, immediately the offseason preparation for 2023 begins. First and foremost on the docket: the Lions’ manager.
Plans to extend head coach Oscar Pareja’s time at Orlando City have already been discussed and may materialize at some point this offseason, General Manager Luiz Muzzi told the Orlando Soccer Journal recently.
Pareja, who still has one year remaining on his current contract, led the Lions to a third consecutive playoff appearance and a U.S. Open Cup title this year and has been a central figure in changing the club’s culture since his arrival in late 2019.
“We’ve been talking about that for a while,” Muzzi told the Soccer Journal. “We’re in a good position with his contract, he and I have been talking and ownership has been involved as well.”
“He’s still on the contract with us. He’s got one more year to go and we’re discussing things, so everything is very good on that front,” added Muzzi. “He’s a very important piece of what we have here, him and his staff, so we’re going to talk when the time comes.”
In his first season with the Lions, Pareja guided Orlando to the MLS is Back Tournament Final – the league’s return to play tournament after COVID-19 canceled the first half of the 2020 season.
That same year, Orlando qualified for its first-ever playoffs and repeated that feat for the following two years (2021, 2022).
After winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in September after defeating Sacramento Republic, the Lions also qualified for the 2023 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League – the region’s top-tier club competition.
At the start of the year, Orlando sold Daryl Dike for a reported club record $9.5 million transfer to West Bromwich Albion – and in return, along with investment from new club owners, Orlando paid $9 million for Uruguayan Facundo Torres, which under Pareja, flourished in his first season in MLS with 13 goals in 40 appearances in all competitions.
Pareja is Orlando’s most winningest coach with a record of 44-32-30 (W-L-D) across all competitions following October’s early playoff exit at Montreal.
Planning for 2023, however, has been in the works before the 2022 season kicked off, Muzzi said.
The Orlando GM also hinted at a busy offseason with the Expansion Draft slated for Nov. 11, the free agency window opening on Nov. 16, and the re-entry process, stage 1 and stage 2, set for Nov. 17 and Nov. 22, respectively.
“We already had plans and names and all of that, so there’s a lot of stuff coming up,” said Muzzi. “There’s an Expansion Draft, there’s re-entry drafts, as usual, the free agency in MLS is growing bigger. There are more and more names, [so] it’s gonna be busy, and then the [college] Super Draft isn’t until the end of December, so we’re very active in everything. There’s never enough season.”
Pick No. 6
Apart from the $500,000 in general allocation money Orlando received from the Chicago Fire last May for Chris Mueller’s playings rights, Muzzi confirmed Orlando holds the No. 6 overall pick because of that trade ahead of the SuperDraft slated for Dec. 21.
While it’s unclear the type of draft class that’s expected this year, Muzzi said the team has increased its scouting efforts to land the right player for the No. 6 pick.
“Having a number six pick changes things right? If you’re sitting at a number 25 then it’s like ‘okay, let’s see what we can get, but having a number six, we’ve been putting a lot of effort into scouting colleges.”
Summer signings report
Orlando didn’t spend much last summer and as Muzzi put it earlier this year, the team had to get creative when it came to recruiting reinforcements.
“Every time you sign a player in the middle of the year, we all know that it’s always difficult no matter who it is,” said Muzzi. “You look around the league and every year it’s really difficult because players coming from abroad find something here that’s completely different. We got guys that actually did that and did contribute right away which of course is everybody’s goal.”
Ivan Angulo was brought on a 12-month loan with an option to extend 6 more months, bringing an immediate impact on the left wing, which saw him finish the season with 10 league appearances, 6 starts, and 3 assists.
Wilder Cartagena signed on loan through the 2022 season with an option to extend through 2023. It is still unclear if the team will exercise that option to extend the midfielder’s stay in Orlando. The Peruvian midfielder finished with 8 appearances and 4 starts.
U.S. forward Nicholas Gioacchini also joined the Lions on a free transfer after signing a 2-and-a-half-year contract with an option year for 2025 – though only played in six games, starting twice since arriving in July.
“The guys that came in did a great job,” said Muzzi. “We didn’t have a way to bring another DP or another young DP or anything like that, but give a lot of credit to our scouts and the way we found those guys that ended up being an important piece of this and will be next year.”
Perhaps the biggest upset this season for Orlando was losing Gaston Gonzalez to injury.
The Lions officially signed the Argentine winger as a U22 Initiative player on May 5, with his contract running through the 2024 season and three additional options years afterward.
But the 20-year-old was immediately placed on the season injury list upon his arrival after suffering an ACL injury on April 19 with former club Club Atletico Union.
With the 2023 MLS regular season expected to begin earlier than expected, Muzzi shared that Gonzalez’s road to full recovery has come a lot sooner than expected.
“Knowing that the timing of his injury was like ‘Hey, he may be ready in six months’ but if he’s ready in six months, he’s coming back for the last game of the season, so there’s no point,” said Muzzi. “So let’s make sure we take eight months or nine months if we need to. So in that sense, the timing of his injury was good from that point of view. He’s doing great, he’s running and he’ll be ready to start preseason.”
A number of Orlando players will be out of contract at the end of the year, but Muzzi confirmed talks are underway and at different stages of negotiating for some time now.
Starting goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, who’s been in talks to renew his contract with Orlando since the start of the year, still hasn’t signed a new deal, but Muzzi is optimistic Gallese will remain a Lion in the long term.
“We absolutely want to have Pedro here in 2023 and beyond,” said Muzzi. “We’ve been talking for a while, and it’s not only Pedro, it’s a few other guys as well, but all I can say right now is that we’re really happy with Pedro and we hope that he’s here in 2023 and beyond.”
Benji Michel is another player the team has been discussing a new deal with, Muzzi confirmed, though both parties are still in the early stages of negotiating.
Muzzi added a number of unnamed players are at different stages of talks but nothing has culminated as of yet.
Orlando City will face a slew of competitions in the upcoming calendar year and following the success of winning the U.S. Open Cup, the Lions have already begun planning ahead.
Apart from the MLS regular season and US Open Cup, Orlando will also compete in the Leagues Cup and CONCACAF Champions League.
With four competitions set to face Orlando, Muzzi said he doesn’t expect to see the roster size increase, a similar scenario every MLS team will have to deal with next year.
“Unfortunately it’s not like we can have more players because we’re playing more competitions,” Muzzi said. “Taking CCL, everybody is going to be in the same boat, so we’re going to hear probably the same thing from every MLS team, but it is what it is, we plan for it but we have the same number of players.”
Muzzi added: “We’re going to have to give more playing time to maybe some players who won’t be getting necessary playing time because, if you don’t rotate your team, you’re going to get to the end of the year and you’re not going to have a team.”
When asked if he or any other team executives have heard anything from the league regarding modifications to the size of team rosters, Muzzi expressed that he hasn’t heard anything from the league office and if anything were to change regarding the topic, it would have been communicated by now.
But the increase in the roster size is another issue, he alluded, that would be dealt with between the league and player’s union since it falls within the lines of the salary cap.
More competition next year means additional assistance from the academy and possibly homegrown players, Muzzi added.
The Orlando City Academy this year added a U12 group to work alongside the U15 and U17 teams to essentially pump talent to Orlando City B and eventually the first team.
While Muzzi admitted it’s normally a slow process to grow the academy, the team’s presence of academy graduates playing at the collegiate level could be a resourceful tool for the Lions next year.
“The academy has been getting better and better,” said Muzzi. “Every time you look at it, it seems they’re stronger and they have better players. Next, we’re going to see those guys probably getting more playing time. The guys are making it to the first team. There’s going to be a lot of competitions right? So they need to get involved a little more and, if you look at our footprint in college as well right now, we’re getting more players into college who can eventually come back [as homegrowns] just like Benji did.”
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