23MLS_Martin_Ojeda_ORL

A strong season came to a bitter end north of the border. As Orlando City SC begrudgingly left the field for the final time in 2022 against CF Montréal in Round One of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, the club were at an inflection point.

Numerous key starters were out of contract. Club captain Mauricio Pereyra was among them, ditto for star goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. Some players were bound to leave, but how many?

Orlando had finished a successful year, winning the US Open Cup and making the playoffs, but now what?

“We knew we needed to refresh,” EVP of soccer operations and GM Luiz Muzzi told MLSsoccer.com. “There were some players who got to the end of the cycle, a normal football cycle… It was time.”

As it turns out, 10 players would depart, six of whom played in the US Open Cup final. Orlando had planned for this eventuality though, continuing a roster evolution that began last winter when Facundo Torres and Ercan Kara arrived while Nani and Daryl Dike left.

Soon, with deals likely to be announced in the coming days, Orlando will have added eight new players.

It’s an eclectic group, ranging from one big-time Designated Player to a rising U22 Initiative winger to a homegrown to a few shrewd SuperDraft selections. But the pieces all fit.

“I’m thankful to work with Luiz, he’s a cap wizard,” technical director Ricardo Moreira said.

The first domino to fall was club captain Pereyra returning on a non-DP deal. That move was key to the offseason, making it possible to add crown-jewel winger Martín Ojeda on a DP deal.

“It’s a decision tree,” Muzzi said. “Which decision is the first domino, then you go from there. It’s part of our job, you hope things work the way you planned. Lots of times there are things you can’t control.”

After a busy offseason with so many ins and outs, Orlando are hoping to once again reach new heights.

“We want to win MLS Cup, that’s our final goal,” Muzzi said. “Open Cup was great, we love the cup. If we can win it again, great, but our end goal is to win MLS Cup. We need to win MLS Cup.”

“We’ve been good the last three years,” Moreira added. “Now we’re aiming for more.”

“Like a telenovela”: The pursuit of Ojeda

In another reality, Ojeda could have been Orlando’s key addition last winter.

As the club courted Torres, Ojeda was high among their targets. Torres ultimately arrived in a club record deal, but Orlando continued to monitor the Argentine winger. They have a scout in Argentina who went to all of Ojeda’s matches with Godoy Cruz in 2022, and the front office kept in contact with Godoy Cruz as well as Ojeda’s representation.

Ojeda, now 24, followed up his breakout 2021 season with another stellar (and consistent) 2022, posting 13 goals and 14 assists in 45 appearances across all competitions.

“We followed him for one year because he’s the perfect fit for us, we truly believe that,” Moreira said. “It was like a telenovela. We had to keep track of him for a year. We know everything about Martín Ojeda because we were so sure we could get him and he’d be a perfect fit. In the first trainings of the preseason, I think we got it right.”

Ojeda had come to an agreement with Godoy Cruz that if he kept up his 2021 production in 2022, the club would listen to offers, and he could leave. Godoy Cruz held up their end of the bargain.

The winger was approached by clubs in Brazil, Spain, Italy and Mexico, but he chose Orlando.

“We’ve been after him for quite some time,” Muzzi said. “He really wanted to come here.”

Ojeda will be a key cog in an attack led by fellows DPs Torres and center forward Kara. The club are finalizing the signing of U22 Initiative winger Romiro Enrique, as MLSsoccer.com reported last week, while another U22 Initiative winger, Gastón González, will make his MLS debut in 2023 after arriving injured last season.

“We were building our roster around his signing,” Moreira said of this offseason’s marquee DP deal. “Ojeda can play in three different positions. The fact that Facundo moves a lot, he’s a right winger but he plays like a free role, it’s a perfect fit.”

Keeping the defense intact

Also key to Orlando’s offseason are the players they brought back. In addition to Pereyra re-signing, the club retained another crucial piece from 2022: Goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.

Gallese, a 32-year-old Peru international, had been with the club for three seasons, but was out of contract. A goalkeeper of his quality isn’t cheap, and with interest from Mexico and abroad, there was no guarantee he’d be back. But by the end of December, a new contract was made official, keeping “El Pulpo” at the club.

He rejoins to keep intact a defensive spine that includes center backs Antônio Carlos, Robin Jansson and Rodrigo Schlegel.

“We feel we have the pieces in defense that can support what we’re doing offensively,” Muzzi said. “In my opinion, we have the best trio of center backs in the league. We have interesting players coming through on the homegrown side. We’ve got a strong foundation.”

Adding to the roster in front of the back line, veteran MLS midfielder Felipe arrived early in the offseason, while sources told MLSsoccer.com a deal is being finalized to sign Iceland international midfielder Dagur Dan Thórhallsson from Breidablik. They'll bolster a starting central midfield duo of César Araújo and Wilder Cartagena.

Meaningful additions from the SuperDraft

Outside of high-priced South American imports, Orlando targeted the 2023 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas, twice trading into the top six to acquire talent.

Orlando selected Duke midfielder Shak Mohammed and Creighton forward Duncan McGuire. McGuire won the NCAA Golden Boot and was awarded the MAC Hermann Trophy, given each year to the college soccer’s best player of the season. Mohammed was in contention to be the top selection in this year’s draft.

“We believe they’re going to have minutes, we believe they’re going to compete for first team spots,” Moreira said. “They’re two very talented young men.”

With Orlando playing in this year’s Concacaf Champions League, plus the extra Leagues Cup games for all MLS teams, there should be plenty of first team minutes to go around.

“We believe Shak can not only play the position he played in college, but he’s a very versatile attack-minded player with such energy, ability and quality that he can be one of the top prospects coming from the draft,” Moreira said.

Orlando have had no shortage of success in the SuperDraft in recent years, selecting Dike and Kamal Miller, while trading for João Moutinho the year after he was the top pick.

“We love the draft,” Moreira said. “There’s talent everywhere. We scout every team in the league, we scout all leagues around the world, but we love to look in our backyard as well. We’ve been lucky enough to get talent in the draft before and I think we were lucky again.”