ORLANDO, Fla. – Entering a new season as a defending champion always carries pressure, no matter the league. But try doing so with one foot out the door and a huge bull’s-eye on your back.
That’s what faces Orlando City, winners of two of the past three USL PRO playoff and regular-season titles and the league's current leader with a 3-0-2 record through five games.
While Orlando City’s players seem to be doing a good job of remaining focused on the 2014 USL PRO season, there is plenty more being done behind closed doors as Orlando City prepare for their long-awaited jump to Major League Soccer in 2015.
The Lions got an early start on shaping their MLS roster during the first few months of the year when they announced multi-year deals with five players that will carry over to MLS in 2015. Midfielders Kevin Molino and Yordany Álvarez – a familiar face to MLS and Orlando fans alike – and Darwin Cerén form the early foundation for the Lions alongside teenage defenders Tyler Turner and Thomas Redding.
The signings do not guarantee starting spots or playing time, however. Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath is never content with the current state of his club, no matter its past success nor its first-place standing.
“Everybody has to earn their place on the team,” Heath said. “Football has never been a given. When you sign a contract for a football club, you’re never guaranteed to play every single Saturday or Wednesday. You have to earn that, and it certainly won’t change once we get to MLS.”
So an ongoing search for talent – from Argentina to Africa and beyond in recent weeks – has been underway for quite some time, as Orlando City take a meticulous approach to piecing together a roster that can compete immediately in North America’s top league.
“We’ve looked very extensively at everybody’s roster within MLS,” Heath said. “We’ve looked at the way we want to play and we’ve looked at what might become available in the expansion draft, and we’re trying to put ourselves in the best possible position that we can. We realize that we’ve got an awful lot of players to bring in and we’ve really got a short period of time to work with, so we’ve been working really hard to try and bring in the kind of players we feel will give us the best chance of success at the next level.”
Álvarez, Molino and Turner have played all 450 minutes of Orlando’s season, as have several other key contributors trying to prove their MLS worth:
- 29-year-old Mexican-American goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo (0.80 GAA)
- 27-year-old former Vancouver Whitecaps center back Brad Rusin
- 25-year-old English left back Luke Boden (1 goal)
One of the most intriguing candidates for promotion is 20-year-old Senegalese midfielder Adama Mbengue. Part of the Orlando organization since the age of 18, Mbengue turned heads of MLS coaches with his potential at the 2012 Disney Pro Soccer Classic, signed a professional contract later that year, has produced a goal and two assists this year in only 169 minutes off the bench. But when he re-signed with Orlando in February, the contract was announced as a one-year deal, leaving questions about his future with the club.
Orlando City hope their immediate future includes yet another USL PRO title and a similar level of success getting ready for 2015. When they will certainly feel a different type of pressure.