ORLANDO, Fla.- Lewis Neal could be forgiven for thinking he is tasked with Mission Impossible in Orlando City’s must-win showdown at home against New York City FC on Friday (7 pm ET, UniMás).
With skipper Kaká suspended for the Lions’ penultimate game of the regular season, Neal is a prime candidate to fill the No. 10 role and go head-to-head with New York’s star midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo.
But the former D.C. United stalwart is not at all fazed by the prospect of being asked to compete against such high-profile opponents in such a high-stakes encounter, as Orlando’s lingering Audi 2015 MLS Cup playoff hopes are firmly on the line.
At the age of 34 and after 16 years in the game in England, Iceland and the US, including two successful promotion campaigns with Stoke City, Neal has all the veteran savvy necessary to tackle the occasion.
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“It is a game to be excited about and look forward to, but you can’t get carried away with the hype,” said Neal, who scored the winning goal for D.C. in the 2013 US Open Cup final. “Even though the stakes are so high, you learn to use your experience to focus on it as just another game, even if it isn’t.
“It doesn’t really matter who is on the field. There are going to be some big names, sure, but that is usually the case in MLS these days, and we can’t afford to get carried away with who is on the other side of the field.”
Neal has seen – and felt – the negative effects of big-game hype on players in the past and is keen to pass on his own experience to his younger teammates. He still vividly remembers pre-match jitters from the final game of the 2002-03 season with Stoke, when the team had to beat Reading to avoid relegation, and his assist to Ade Akinbiyi secured a 1-0 victory.
“That was horrible leading up to that game with so much stake,” he admitted. “But it reminds you that, while this is certainly a one-off game and we have to treat it as such, if you don’t have the right mind-set, guys can get nervous and their decision-making is affected. So we really just have to prepare in the same way we have for the past couple of months.”
Although Orlando will be without both Kaká and Brek Shea due to one-game yellow-card accumulation suspensions, Neal believes the club's current four-game winning streak – by far the best of their inaugural season – will stand the Lions in good stead.
“There is something wrong if we don’t go into the game with the firm belief we can win,” He confirmed. “Our confidence should be sky-high and, while New York aren’t going to come here and let us take the game, we have to think we can get the three points we need with the players available.”
Head coach Adrian Heath is in no doubt Neal can again fit the bill in central midfield if he and his coaching staff decide to reprise the lineup they used when Kaká was away with Brazil for Orlando’s game in Chicago on Sept. 19, which the Lions won 1-0.
“I don’t have any reservation that Lewis can do the role or understand the role,” Heath insisted. “He has played at an incredibly consistent level for a long time now. He has been through all this before and has all the experience you need. You know what you are going to get with Lewis Neal. He is a good footballer who gets the game and can play three or four different roles.”