The question: What player made three debuts in the same city with three different teams in the space of just six years?
The future of the popular British midfielder had been in question since he was among the eight players to have their options declined by the first-year MLS team last month. Neal played in 21 games this year but had also appeared for Orlando’s debut as a USL team almost five years ago, scoring their very first goal.
Now he will get a third chance to make a debut for the Lions with the new Orlando City B next year as he provides a veteran presence for the new team's inaugural season back at USL level.
In addition, he will take a coaching role with the Orlando City Academy and start a parallel career as a broadcaster with some new television projects within the club. It is a unique treble he is eagerly anticipating.
“I am really looking forward to it and very excited about getting going now,” Neal explained. “We have had about three or four weeks off and I am getting itchy feet!
“Now I’ve had a chance to think about it, it’s definitely one of those special moments because I was here for the start of USL in 2011, then for MLS this year and now I will be there for the start of another new team, which makes for three phases of the club’s history. It’s something I will be very proud of.”
Neal admitted the team’s initial decision on November 25 to decline his contract option for 2016 was a blow, but there were already moves afoot to extend his connection with the Lions.
“On the day I was called into the office and told the news about being released, I was definitely disappointed. I can’t lie about that,” he admitted. “I was hoping to stay for at least another year with the MLS side, but I did find out about this possibility a few days later and it certainly softened the blow.
“Over the next three or four weeks we have been in negotiations and figuring out my role and, while we still have to work on some of the details, I am really pleased with how things have worked out.”
Neal’s primary role will be as the leader of head coach Anthony Pulis’ squad, which is likely to be a young team bolstered by a couple of MLS and USL veterans. He and Pulis have yet to have a sit-down meeting – Pulis is away on a coaching course – but the two have spoken on the phone and Neal is ready to take on the latest part of his career, having moved to the US with Orlando in& 2011, played for D.C. United from 2012-14, and then re-joined the Lions in the Expansion Draft in Dec. 2014.
- Check out more Orlando City news at OrlandoCitySC.com
There were also other factors involved in his decision: “It is not just about me these days,” he added. “With two children, it is also about my family, and not wanting to have to move around again. I had to ask myself, do I love living in Orlando? And the answer was yes. And do I love being involved with this organization? And that was also a definite yes.
“This gives me some experience going into the next phase of my career. They have signed me to be a bit of a leader, to be that experienced guy on the field and a role model for the younger ones, and I can’t wait to get started. It’s not going to be easy just because we won this league before, but I think we’re putting a great team in place.”