On Wednesday Orlando city signed left-back Jonathan Suarez. known on loan from Queretaro FC in Mexico. Suarez has been on loan for a year, which includes an option to buy him at the end of the 2021 Major League Soccer season. If the term “option to buy” sounds familiar, there is a reason for it. Since the arrival of Luiz Muzzi, Orlando has repeatedly placed players (especially young ones) on loan, which include an option to sign the player on a permanent contract.
On January 22nd, the Lions loaned goalkeeper Brandon Austin, 22, for six months with the option to extend his time in Orlando for an additional six months. So far, using credit with built-in options for young players has paid off well, and a look at Orlando’s roster for the 2020 season reveals several players who were acquired and successful with the aforementioned OCSC.
The most famous representative of this group is Antonio Carlos. The great center-back was signed a one year loan with option to buy back in December 2019 and after the year it had in 2020, it is likely that makes his deal permanent was high on Lions’ to-do lists at the end of the season. The defender played 20 regular season games for OCSC, scored a goal and an assist and also started in both playoff games.
Carlos easily breaks the shape of the other loans on the Lions list since he was 26 years old when he signed it. While he became a pivotal piece for the Lions in his first season, it’s important to remember that he was a semi-unknown figure when he signed up. Despite having a great season at Palmeiras in 2018, he fell heavily out of favor in 2019 and hadn’t played many professional games for someone his age. Because of this, signing a loan was a low risk, rewarding way to get it, and it was a wise decision that paid off.
The other big success story from 2020 is Andres Perea. He was also signed in December 2019as did Carlos, and now Suarez – a year-end loan with an option to buy at the end of the season. When he signed, Perea was definitely an unknown at the age of only 19, with only 15 professional appearances for the Colombian Atletico Nacional. To paraphrase our own Sean Rollins, even though he occupied a position in defensive midfield, the massive question was whether or not he would be a productive player in MLS.
He didn’t get much playing time initially, but ended up appearing in each of the team’s 23 regular season games and in both playoff games. The youngster impressed so much that he earned a USMNT call-up and made his debut last Sunday. He too had exercised his purchase option after the end of the 2020 season and could very well become a mainstay in midfield in the course of 2021.
The other two loan players in Orlando’s squad this year were Rodrigo Schlegel and Alexander Alvarado, both of whom were signed perpetual contracts in December after a year-long loan Offers in December 2019 and October 2020, respectively. Both are under 24 years of age and fill positions that the team needs. While Alvarado didn’t have much time to show what he was capable of on the field, Schlegel was an able defender when challenged; and of course he’s not too shabby in the gate either. While it’s too early to label a player as a success or failure for the team, the Lions were wise to take the time to evaluate them before committing to the long term, which it used to be not.
Recruiting younger players has not always been done this way by Orlando City, and the results have not always been in Lions’ favor. Carlos Rivas was signed as Young Designated Player at the age of 20 and although the initial returns were promising, he was unable to realize his early shown potential and his development stalled badly. The team eventually swapped him in 2018 along with Tommy Redding and grant money to the New York Red Bulls in exchange for Sacha Kljestan; and he’s now playing in his native Colombia.
The other big swing and miss that has jumped out in recent years is Josué Colmán, who actually brought in just a few weeks after departure from Rivas. His arrival was to say the least, with the Lions saying no. 10 jersey and a five-year contract as a Young Designated Player. Things … didn’t work out. Even though he was only 19 years old at the time, he just didn’t produce the way a YDP needs it, and was loaned out in June 2019 before his contract option was denied at the end of the 2020 season.
Above all, the Colmán contract, which was subject to the former General Manager Niki Budalic, is exemplary of the way in which MLS teams did business before “MLS 3.0” – that is, money and long contracts with young, often South American Players throw in a race for the next Luciano Acosta or Miguel Almiron. If you are a club with very big wallets this can be a semi-successful strategy, but Orlando does not fall into that category and so a change in philosophy was required in order for the club to be successful when it came to signing young players.
OCSC has certainly gotten better at identifying young talent since Muzzi’s arrival, and this fact shouldn’t be overlooked. However, the Lions have also gotten smarter in the way they bring these players on board, and no matter what they show on the field, Suarez and Austin are the latest examples of this new thinking being put into action will.