Merely 10 days after he was officially appointed head coach of Orlando City, Oscar Pareja was busy scouting at the 2019 College Cup.
Orlando held the No. 5 pick of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, which would take place a few weeks later. The starting XIs between Georgetown University and the University of Virginia for the NCAA D-1 men's soccer championship match featured three players who would ultimately be drafted in the top six picks come draft day.
The player drawing the most eyes was, as often tends to be the case, the forward. Daryl Dike was UVA's leading scorer and a hugely intriguing prospect. His physical strength was obvious, drawing comparisons to Jozy Altidore, and his highlight reel was jam-packed with clips showcasing his delicate feet, technical ability and finishing touch.
Daryl Dike in action for the University of Virginia | University of Virginia
There were concerns, like any other prospect, that kept him from being the consensus No. 1 pick. Chief among them were suggestions that Dike was not goal-hungry enough and perhaps a little too raw.
“I was at his final game in college, he surprised me," Pareja told media earlier this month. "To see a young guy with such power. … I didn’t know what was going to happen at the draft, but we had our eye on Daryl."
Dike, as it turned out, was still on the board when Orlando made their selection. The club gladly took him with the fifth overall pick and the forward has enjoyed a breakout first season in MLS.
Between sheer talent and the rapid progress he made in training, Dike was given his chance in MLS and hasn't looked back. He made his debut off the bench during the knockout rounds of the MLS is Back Tournament after a rash of injuries struck the Lions and he has remained in the lineup post-tournament. The forward has started 11 of the club's last 13 matches, contributing four goals and three assists while seeing his stock rise as he's set to be recognized as one of the best 22 Under 22 players in the league.
“He’s got everything to be a top player, not only here but for the national team," Orlando EVP of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi said.
"Gregg [Berhalter] better be looking at him,” Muzzi added with a laugh.
Dike has blossomed in Orlando and has arguably been the best rookie in the league alongside No. 6 draft selection and former UVA teammate Henry Kessler, as well as Chicago Fire FC homegrown defender Mauricio Pineda.
Dike's MLS goal reel
Daryl Dike GOALS from 02-01-2020 to 10-22-2020
While Dike's talent was obvious, it was conceivable that if he didn't go No. 1 to Inter Miami, he might slip given team needs behind that first pick (Nashville at No. 2, Miami again at No. 3 and Vancouver at No. 4). Miami took forward Robbie Robinson with the top spot and Dike was the next forward selected at No. 5.
Youth and college soccer expert Travis Clark projected in his final mock draft on MLSsoccer.com that Dike would go No. 5.
"I had been able to piece together what could happen with the top two picks, and always thought there would be a good chance that if Dike didn't go to Miami at No. 1, he'd fall to No. 5 simply based off team needs," Clark said. He added Dike was the No. 2 prospect on his big board, behind center back Jack Maher. Nashville SC selected Maher second overall.
So far it's been a good fit between Dike and Orlando. Pareja has one of the best reputations for developing and trusting young players in the league and the Lions weren't exactly deep at center forward. Once Dom Dwyer went down with a season-ending injury during the MLS is Back Tournament, Dike was handed his professional debut.
The club did have other options, chief among them veteran forward Tesho Akindele. Wingers Chris Mueller and Benji Michel also have the versatility to play at center forward, but Dike earned his chance through training performance and a relatively quick transition period. Orlando aren't surprised to see him contributing, but they were impressed with how quickly he adapted to the professional game and Pareja's game model.
"The one thing you can do to make sure (young players) fail is to put them in a situation that adds pressure right away," Muzzi said. "It’s rare to see someone step up right away and make an immediate contribution. You have to have patience and develop. Daryl went through that process in a shorter period of time than we expected, but he deserved to get the minutes he’s getting. It wasn’t like ‘Hey, let’s play this guy and see what happens.’ In training, he showed that he had it. He’s still got a long way to go, he’s going to have ups and downs and that’s normal. He was born in 2000, he’s a very young player. Yes, we expected he was going to be a contributor, but we had patience. He’s going to have ups and downs."
Now, the sky's the limit for Dike.
The hulking center forward will always be a physical presence up top, but he's showing he's plenty more than just a strong target man or aerial threat. Those physical traits give him quite a high ceiling if he continues to develop on this trajectory.
“[His potential is] hard to say," Clark said. "One thing about Dike is that he didn't come from the familiar path. Coming from Oklahoma, he had some exposure to Oklahoma City Energy and the youth setup there. He wasn't a regular in youth national team camps and didn't play in the Development Academy.
"In some ways, there could be much more to come from a player like him, that may not have maxed out his ability yet. Establishing himself as a consistent contributor in MLS is a good first step, and if he continues to progress at a rapid rate, he could become a possible candidate for a transfer to a European club in the next couple of years.”