You know those two friends that you thought would make a great couple? And it wasn't just you--it was the entire circle of friends that know both of them. All of you just knew they would be great together. But when they finally got together it was like oil and balsamic vinegar--they could just never stay fully blended into each other's lives and always seemed to have separate agendas. And the relationship was a colossal failure marked by opportunities squandered on both sides.
Larin Squandered his Chance to Impress
Well, that pretty much sums up the Cyle Larin experiment with Orlando City SC. In 2015 expansion side Orlando City drafted Cyle Larin and he unexpectedly got a lot of playing time after an injury to Kevin Molino. And under the tutelage of coach Adrian Heath, Larin parlayed that opportunity into an MLS Rookie of the Year campaign, shattering the previous scoring record by a rookie and tallying 17 goals. The global soccer world was abuzz with rumors of strong interest by European clubs that may be eager to sign the shiny new MLS star. Then the honeymoon ended.
In 2016 Larin managed to find the back of the net only 14 times. Granted a healthy Kevin Molino also scored double-digit goals and took the scoring pressure off the young lad, but Larin increasingly became a one-trick pony: the only time he seemed able to score was when he stood in front of the goal inside the six-yard box and re-directed a strong pass or assist from a teammate into the back of the net.
This was the beginning of Larin squandering his opportunity to prove to European clubs that he was a hot prospect. The stories of European interest didn't completely die down, but they went from a boil to a simmer and it was clear that fans in Orlando were growing more frustrated with Larin than enchanted by him. Larin is a strong and relatively tall player out on the pitch, and his rookie season made it seem like he might be a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar type scorer, who not only could score from close range but also had the ability to create opportunities for himself and score from further away. But in year two it became apparent he was more like a Shaquille O'Neal--if Larin could fall down and his body would be across the goal line he could score. Otherwise, he'd have the ball kicked off his feet or he'd serve up the soccer equivalent of throwing bricks at the backboard.
And in 2017 it only got worse. With Molino gone, Larin's production sank to a new career low of 11 goals. Most matches it looked like he wasn't even trying out there. Then he had some off-the-field issues with a DUI arrest that forced him to miss several matches due to league substance abuse protocols, and he finished the second half of the season with barely a whimper. The only signs of life he showed came after August when Orlando City secured a trade with Sporting KC to bring Dom Dwyer to the City Beautiful. The spark of Dwyer in the Starting XI seemed to shatter Larin's feet of clay for a hot moment, and for a few matches in August and September you saw Larin racing around the pitch, contributing a little on defense, and trying to get separation from opposing defenders so he could actually be open for passes from his teammates. But then he remembered he was Cyle Larin and he quit trying again.
Club Squandered Chances to Profit
Larin's effort was so underwhelming that once it became apparent Orlando City would not make the playoffs, Coach Jason Kreis started leaving him out of the Starting XI. In this writer's opinion, that move was too little, too late. By mid-2016 when Coach Jason Kreis was hired it was already apparent Cyle Larin thought his job was to stand around in front of goal and wait for his teammates to serve him the perfect ball instead of trying to create for himself. That should have had him riding the bench for a few matches to teach him the value of creating opportunities for himself.
But it was the Orlando City front office that failed to properly value and encourage and groom Cyle Larin for success beyond MLS. It reminds me of another colossal failure in the history of Orlando Sports. Back in 1992 when the ping-pong ball fell in favor of the Orlando Magic, they drafted Shaquille O'Neal. I remember reading a profile of the player in The Orlando Sentinel the day after he was drafted. One detail that jumped out at me was his recollection of his childhood dreams. He said he had grown up an LA Lakers fan and he had always dreamed of putting on the purple and gold and playing for the Lakers. To me, that said that if he turned out to be a big star, he was eventually going to head west to the bright lights and big city of LA.
The Orlando Magic should have known that as well and should have been actively working as O'Neal was finishing the penultimate year of his rookie contract to create the best possible trade they could with the Lakers in order to be sure that the team got something of value for the player. They may have been able to engineer a trade that would have been the NBA equivalent of the Herschel Walker trade from Dallas to Minnesota, where the Cowboys sent Walker north and received five players and eight future draft picks (including three first-round picks) in return. But did the Magic front office prove to have the foresight of upstart coach Jimmy Johnson? No. They tenaciously clung to O'Neal throughout his entire rookie career and didn't even try to restructure or extend his contract. In the end, Shaq walked away from Orlando and onto his childhood dream team as a free agent and the Magic got nothing in return.
Just like Shaq's dreams of playing in LA, Cyle Larin was not shy about telling anyone who would listen when he was drafted by Orlando City that he eventually hoped to play in Europe. That's not a bad dream for a soccer player--the biggest paychecks and brightest lights and best competition in the world is found across the Atlantic. Orlando City had signed former Ballon d'Or winner Kaka more than six months before they played their first match, and Cyle Larin's rookie campaign made it look like he might have the potential to someday capture the same honor if he were on a big enough stage with bright enough lights on him.
With this in mind, the encouragement and communications between the front office and Larin should have been designed around helping the player achieve his longer-term dreams. Coaches and executives should have been feeding Larin information about what skills to develop and showcase in order to make himself the most attractive version of himself that he could for high-profile European sides. The brain trust in Orlando City's front office had a perfect blueprint to follow: the aforementioned Dallas Cowboys trading Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings.
In the Herschel Walker trade from Dallas, Jimmy Johnson was intent on bringing draft picks to the Cowboys. He helped to engineer a blockbuster trade by playing several NFL clubs off of each other to see who would bid the most for landing Walker. Orlando City's front office could have done the same with Larin. By a combination of giving the lad good advice on how to develop his game to be the most attractive to top European leagues and planting the seeds of interest across teams from multiple leagues, Orlando City could well have engineered a bidding war for their young star player.
OCSC's front office should have been actively working to build interest in Cyle Larin in the top five European leagues through their contacts and associations across the Atlantic. They had or still have partnerships in EPL with Stoke City and in Portugal with Benfica. Cultivating relationships in the French Ligue 1, Germany's Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga, and Italy's Serie A could have manufactured interest and fostered competition across the continent for teams eager to get Larin into their system.
A trade resulting from a bidding war could have created a huge payday for the young MLS club in terms of a record transfer fee for a player going to Europe from MLS, and they may also have been able to talk a top European team into sending some young prospects from their system to MLS in the deal. And if Orlando City knew that certain other MLS clubs were eyeing certain European prospects, those young players may have been parlayed into additional trades to bolster the Orlando City roster.
But the club's front office proved to be about as incompetent about handling Larin as the Magic were about handling Shaq. Instead of following the Jimmy Johnson model of turning a proven star into a launching pad for club success, the Orlando City front office succeeded in turning a promising opportunity into a bucket of warm spit.
The first day of the 2018 MLS pre-season camp for Orlando City has come and gone and Cyle Larin did not report as the team expected him to. At this point, I think the team should consider him nothing more than a scout team player if he does ever report to camp. It's likely, however, that he will hold out until the team accepts whatever low-ball offer some second-tier European club makes for him unless FIFA rules that the club's option years added to Larin's contract don't entitle them to any compensation from a club overseas.
All Sides to Blame and No Pity for their Tears
It's already clear that Turkish side Besiktas was never very interested in signing Larin for their first team and instead planned to loan him out to a second division Turkish squad. And it's likely that his lackluster performance and lazy tendencies on the pitch mean that any top-tier European side would demand that he prove himself in a second- or third-division team before offering him the opportunity to step up on the big stage. My guess is that Larin would see that as something of a slap in the face and would show no more effort in a lower-tier European side than he did in 2017 in MLS. If he pulls those antics he'll find himself riding the bench for the bulk of the season and continually traded to lower and lower leagues until he realizes that it would be a better use of his time to go back home to Canada and get a job at Tim Horton's or something.
As for Orlando City's front office, they had dreams of either turning Cyle Larin into a global ambassador for the club or of making a huge payday with a record-breaking transfer to Europe. It's clear that's not going to happen, and they largely have themselves to blame for squandering their opportunity to help make those outcomes a reality.
In any case, I will shed no tears for either Larin or the front office. For the player, he may have a chance at redemption if someone gives him some good advice and makes him understand his career will go only as far as he proves he's willing to play every match as though his life hung in the balance. For the club, I hope they will use this squandered opportunity as a lesson to realize how they should handle any future hot draft picks. And that lesson had better be learned quickly: in Cam Lindley, Chris Mueller, and Josue Colman the club may already have signed more than one player that will have Orlando City fans saying, "Cyle who?" by midseason.