There are many reasons it's great to be an Orlando City fan. For one you get to wear a lot of purple. Purple is a fun color and a lot of attractive women love it. So getting a chance to pull on the purple is a good thing. Another great thing about being an Orlando City fan is having your team squarely in the center of all the rumors about every big name European player that might be possibly contemplating a possible potential transfer to MLS. And most of the time, the rumors have just about as much certainty as that last sentence.
But lately there have been more rumors swirling more loudly and through more sources about 2014 German World Cup Champion team member Lukas Podolski, who is currently on contract with Arsenal in the EPL, and has spent a lot of the 2014-15 season on loan to Milan in the Italian Serie A. Podolski did not see much playing time with Arsenal before he was loaned out, and for some reason there seems to have been a falling out between the German striker and club management. In the last few days, several European news stories and global soccer sites have quoted Podolski as saying he needs to leave Arsenal to see minutes on the pitch, a verbal about-face from just a week ago when he anticipated returning to the EPL for next season after the summer.
Normally I try not to give too much credence to rumors regarding the team, but my ears perked up on Tuesday night at Coach Heath's show when host Tom Traxler and Coach Adrian Heath talked openly about the prospect of Podolski coming to Orlando. If they are mentioning it openly, then I feel pretty confident that there is some real interest throughout the organization and perhaps even some exploratory conversations between Orlando City brass and Arsenal or Podolski's agent. So for now I'm going to take the unusual step (for this blog) of entertaining that there is a real interest in bringing Podolski here. Let's look at the benefits bringing him in would add to the team and then the challenges that have to be met to actually make it happen.
The Power of Podolski
So there's no disputing the cache that signing a guy like Lukas Podolski could bring to Orlando City. We have exactly one World Cup Championship winner and FIFA Ballon D'or recipient on the roster currently. Adding Lukas Podolski would bring a second World Cup Championship winner to the roster. It would also bring an established star of European soccer to our shores in the prime of his career. This is something that hasn't been seen in North American soccer since the days of the old NASL, when the original Tampa Bay Rowdies were the only professional football team between Miami and Atlanta.
In terms of tactics, signing Podolski would also add a key player in a position where Orlando City is a bit challenged--the role of a number one striker. Now I'm a huge fan of both Cyle Larin and Pedro Ribeiro, but I have to believe both of them are very early in their career and are several seasons away from realizing their full potential. Flavio da Silva, Phil Rawlins, and Adrian Heath have been laser focused and message consistent in their stated goal of being a playoff team in MLS in their first season and being in the playoffs is pointless unless you plan to win it all. Podolski's experience and skill could definitely provide a boost to the roster and a spark of confidence for the team that the club ownership is serious about winning.
From a strategic standpoint, the move makes sense as well. Most American sports fans watched all or part of the World Cup last summer and remember Germany's dominant performance. The club's recent announcement about expanding stadium capacity caused a surge in the season ticket waiting list for 2016. Signing a player that won the World Cup less than a year ago could drive interest for more fans to get on the season ticket list and sell more tickets for matches later in this current season, making the already large crowds at the Citrus Bowl even more intimidating and distracting for visiting squads.
So these are all good reasons for Orlando City to try to pursue Podolski. But with every big-time move there are always some challenges to overcome. We'll look at those next.
The Lukas Conundrum
The first thing that would be an issue for Orlando City is the question of the Designated Player slot. Each MLS side has a maximum of 3 DPs they can sign to their roster, and at this point Orlando City already has all three signed. The most visible is, of course, Kaka, our team captain. But young players Carlos Rivas (21) and Bryan Rochez (20) are also occupying DPs on the roster. So with the restrictions of MLS, adding Podolski would by necessity mean removing either Rivas or Rochez from the roster.
Now there was some long-term strategy to the club's decision in bringing two young DPs into the roster. Standing back you can marvel at how Orlando City chose to mix experienced veterans (Kaka, Brek Shea, Aurelien Collin, Donovan Ricketts) and young talented players full of potential (Rafael Ramos, Cyle Larin, Pedro Ribeiro) to build a team that has both immediate power and long-term future potential. Dropping Rivas or Rochez from the roster would take away some of that future potential for long-term growth and replace it with more immediate impact for the current season. Is that trade off worth it? To be honest I'm not student enough of the game to know if that's a positive long-term benefit to the team, but I do know that championships are never guaranteed and tomorrow can never be clearly predicted. So it may benefit the team to choose one of the two young DPs and see if he could be sold or traded in some sort of multi-team, multi-league fashion that would free up a roster spot for Podolski and the chance to win a championship immediately.
A second consideration is team chemistry. I've written before how as an Orlando City fan from the USL Pro days I had grown accustomed to winning and looking like the side that dominated every match, and how painful the early part of the MLS season was to realize that all these talented players can't just gel in the matter of one pre-season camp and all be on the same page for all 90 minutes of every match. We've seen the team come together before our eyes, with younger players learning from their mistakes and gaining confidence with each match. There's a chemistry developing on the pitch that is starting to be able to cope with the rolling call-ups for International Duty and the occasional lineup changes forced by injury or red card suspension.
Bringing in a player of Podolski's caliber would almost dictate having to play start him, and in Coach Heath's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, that would mean playing Cyle Larin and Pedro Ribeiro both from either the bench or slightly out of their preferred and most effective role at midfield positions. This would cause ripples with moving other players around and would mean that some players may have to give up a starting role while others have to adjust to a different placement on the pitch. Would that cause a lot of disruption in team chemistry, or would the lads slide into these new roles as smoothly as Kaka sambas down the pitch with the ball on his feet? That I don't know--but it's a consideration.
Pay and Permanence
And finally there are the twin considerations of pay and permanence. Podolski is said to earn around $100,000 per match with Arsenal. That sounds like a lot, but if we equaled that pay over the course of a season at Orlando City, it would still put Podolski at about half of Kaka's salary. So it's not an outrageous sum to expect for a club like Orlando City to pay. Now whether the club's finances would permit them to add that to the payroll after signing up to self-finance the new stadium is a different question. And if I don't know enough about the game to accurately judge the tradeoff of immediate performance vs. future potential, then I certainly don't know enough about the business side of the club to say anything about the finances.
And along with the pay comes the issue of permanence. How long would Podolski want to play for Orlando City or in the MLS? Would competing for MLS Cup trophies be a satisfying career goal for him at this point? Kaka has already won everything you can win in European and global football, so he has embraced the challenge of raising the level of MLS competition and prestige. But other players may not want to spend the prime of their careers doing that if they believe there is the potential to play for titles in European football at the highest levels. Podolski may still have dreams about hoisting a Champions League trophy as did Messi and Neymar and the rest of the the Barcelona club in recent weeks. If Podolski came to Orlando City for the remainder of 2015, would he then bolt back to Europe at season's end to sign on with a team in La Liga, the Bundesliga, or the EPL? That's a real possibility, especially if Orlando City advance far in the playoffs and Podolski has a prolific turn of goal scoring. There will always be sides in the hyper-competitive continental soccer landscape that are desperate for goal scorers to shore up their roster to the end of the season due to injury, poor performance, or just a lack of a spark in the current lineup.
So I know this post has raised a lot more questions than it answered, but I hope it provides some thoughts, and maybe some readers have some insights that can help us as fans get our heads beyond the initial excitement and really dig into the cost-benefit analysis of adding a player like Podolski to the Orlando City roster.
What about you? What do you think? Should Orlando City pursue every possibility of getting Podolski on the squad, and if so, which DP slot do you think they would give up?