Orlando City players face complicated, protracted battle to earn MLS places
MLS isn't an abstract, distant concept in Orlando anymore. The Board of Governors accepted Orlando City's expansion bid in November. A transition to the top flight beckons next season. A soccer-specific stadium is on the way shortly thereafter. And everyone in the city knows it.
All of the corresponding excitement comes with a caveat for the players preparing for their final voyage through USL PRO: most of them won't make the leap with the club next year.
“It's funny because our mentality is so different than everyone else's in the city,” Orlando City midfielder Jamie Watson told Inside MLS earlier this month. “Twenty people have such a different view. Everyone is like, we're going to MLS, we all know it, we'll be there next year and we've bought our season tickets already. For us, six, seven, eight, nine guys may make it. More than half of the guys aren't going to be there. We're notnaïve enough to not know that or not think about it. But if we all buy into it together, it gives more guys the chance to make the jump.”
Not even the collective strength of the group can solve the numbers problem ahead for Orlando City boss Adrian Heath. There isn't enough room to accommodate every player poised to feature for the club this season. And the already stiff competition for places increases with each passing day as more players – including El Salvador captain Darwin Cerén (one of three players guaranteed a roster spot after signing a contract through 2015, according to a club release), ex-New York and Vancouver striker Corey Hertzog and former Whitecaps defender Brad Rusin – join the club in the hopes of earning a spot for the expansion excursion.
Heath must strike a delicate balance as he attempts to build a group capable of winning USL PRO without sacrificing the necessary preparations for 2015. The former Everton midfielder said he plans to preach the need for consistency and diligence to his players as they manage their aspirations over the short- and the medium-term.
“Obviously, there's going to be some disappointment along the way for one or two people,” Heath said. “That's something we're going to have to handle when it comes. The only thing they can do is concentrate on playing. That's important because, as I said to them, the other stuff will come. [They can't] start worrying about stuff they can't control. Let's control the controllables. If they do that and play like they can, then hopefully five or six of them will come with us, which is what we're after. If they don't, then that's the way it is and we move on.”
Most of these players learned that lesson some time ago as they filtered down the leagues. Rob Valentino never expected to drop out of MLS when he agreed to a Generation adidas contract and came off the board in the first round of the 2008 MLS SuperDraft. He split time between New England and Colorado for two years without playing in a first-team match before dropping into the second division with FC Tampa Bay in 2010 and then signing with Orlando City before the start of the 2011 slate.
Valentino soon established himself as one of the top defenders outside the first division and worked his way into a critical role on and off the field with Orlando City. He wants to return to MLS as soon as possible, but he understands he and his teammates must perform consistently in USL PRO in order to make a viable case to do it.
“I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about MLS,” Valentino said. “That's my goal. I want to play at the highest level. I have made no qualms about that. I definitely want to get back to that level with the club. But for me, I can't go anywhere unless we do well as a team.”
Watson agrees with Valentino on the importance of the collective efforts this season and identifies with his desire to claw back into MLS. The former U.S. under-17 international also landed a Generation adidas deal out of North Carolina and tumbled out of the league after spending parts of four seasons with Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas. He bounced around a bit before establishing himself with Austin Aztex in 2009 and moving with the club to Orlando two years later.
His time in Orlando has included several trophies, a wealth of good memories and even a brief loan spell with NASL side Minnesota in 2012. He hopes to lean on the experience gained during his journey down the leagues to stake a claim for one of the few available berths on the MLS roster.
“Personally, I think right now, it's a good time for me to come back,” Watson said. “I was too young. I don't think I was mature enough to handle it. I bought into what into people were saying: 'that guy is so-and-so, he's done this, he's a good player.' I started to believe the hype. That was my own fault. It took me getting knocked down from a Generation adidas contract to playing PDL to playing USL-2 to USL PRO, USL-1 and NASL, all of that to appreciate it what it really means to be a professional soccer player. It'd be a nice little story, wouldn't it? Hopefully, I can prove in the next 12 months that I deserve to be there.”
Several players in the Orlando City locker room harbor similar goals. Each of them wants to join their expectant city on the path to MLS. This campaign will dictate whether they will follow that road or travel down another. The ultimate objective is within touching distance now, but they must grab onto it with both hands to ensure it does not slip away from them before it becomes a reality.
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