2015 regular season: 7th Eastern Conference (14th overall)
MLS Cup odds: 33/1
Players in: Mason Stajduhar (Homegrown), Joe Bendik (Toronto FC, trade), Richie Laryea (SuperDraft), Hadji Barry (SuperDraft), Devron Garcia (CD Victoria, undisclosed), Antonio Nocerino (AC Milan, free)
Players out: Tally Hall (option declined), Josh Ford (option declined), Corey Ashe (option declined), Eric Avila (option declined), Lewis Neal (option declined), Danny Mwanga (option declined), Adam Bedell (option declined), Sidney Rivera (option declined), Tony Cascio (out of contract), Estrela (waived)
As far as expansion teams go, Orlando City SC were a pretty good one in 2015. Maintaining some continuity from their USL Pro days by keeping head coach Adrian Heath, the club sat firmly inside the top four of the Eastern Conference come July and looked a good bet to sail into the playoffs. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off over the coming months as injuries and international call-ups took their toll, but they were still in in contention for a postseason berth right up until the last week of the campaign.
The team didn’t need much change over the winter, so better health and cohesion will be the key to success in 2016.
Reasons to be positive
While club captain Kaka stole most of the headlines last season, Orlando certainly weren’t a one-man team thanks to a handful of promising players. No. 1 overall pick Cyle Larin was a revelation, scoring a rookie record 17 goals to win the Rookie of the Year award, while Colombian midfielder Cristian Higuita and Portuguese right-back Rafael Ramos both established themselves among the league’s top youngsters at their respective positions. El Salvador skipper Darwin Ceren deserves a special mention, too, as he was voted the Players’ Player of the Year for his influential presence in central midfield and the dressing room.
All those aforementioned players should be key contributors in 2016, but Heath’s side will also be further boosted by the return of winger Kevin Molino. The Trinidad and Tobago international is back in full training after missing most of last season with a torn knee ligament, and having bagged 20 USL goals in 2014, it’s hoped that he can take some of the scoring burden off Larin. Similarly, Break Shea was plagued by injury issues throughout 2015, playing just 19 times as a result, and the potential impact he could make at left-back if he stays healthy for the full campaign cannot be overstated.
Even more exciting, though, is the chance to see Antonio Nocerino prowling around the centre of the park. Reunited with former AC Milan teammate Kaka, the Italian midfielder still has a lot to offer at this stage of his career and should make a big impact on both sides of the ball in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1 formation. He’s been the only high-profile arrival this offseason, but fledgling attackers Carlos Rivas and Bryan Rochez could both be like new signings if they can go on to fulfil their obvious potential.
Trouble on the horizon?
The main worry regarding Orlando is what happens if either Kaka or Larin is struck down by injury. If just one of the pair is out for an extended period, it’s easy to see the whole attack crumbling into a complete mess, and the defence simply doesn’t look strong enough to carry the team. As things stand, there is still uncertainty over whether Seb Hines or David Mateos starts alongside the experienced but volatile Aurelien Collin at centre-back, although the former's shock four-goal performance in Saturday night's 6-1 friendly win over Brazilian club Bahia will obviously help his case.
Key man: Kaka
Kaka wasn’t quite MVP-calibre in his first season in MLS but he was still impressive, recording nine goals and seven assists in 28 appearances. His legs aren’t able to carry him around the pitch liked they used to during his heyday at Milan, but his passing and vision still makes him a threat to turn a game in a second.
One to watch: Richie Laryea
The University of Akron’s latest star export, Laryea’s attacking skills saw him dominate college competition and ultimately prompted Orlando to take him seventh overall in the 2016 SuperDraft. A childhood friend of Larin, the 21-year-old midfielder is unlikely to make as big an impact during his rookie season as his fellow Canadian, but he should find a way to playing time thanks to his ability to play either out wide or through the middle.
Predicted regular season finish: 5th Eastern Conference
With Kaka pulling the strings, Larin banging in goals and Nocerino combining with Ceren and Higuita in midfield, Orlando can go into the season feeling confident about their playoff chances. The defence may endure one or two hiccups, but as long as they can keep their star men on the pitch, they should have every chance of securing their first postseason appearance.