With four players on the current roster, no club is better represented at the US men’s national team’s January camp than Orlando City SC, whose Exploria Stadium home will host Sunday’s friendly vs. Trinidad and Tobago (7 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, TUDN).
Daryl Dike, Benji Michel, Chris Mueller and Andres Perea are all in contention for minutes, a hefty presence for the Lions and a reflection of the huge progress made in year No. 1 under coach Oscar Pareja. All but Mueller are Olympic-eligible, and all but Mueller are seeking their USMNT debut, making the 24-year-old University of Wisconsin product – who scored two goals in his first cap, earned just last month – almost a veteran by comparison.
“I haven’t been around for too long,” Mueller said on Monday, chuckling at the idea that he might provide some mentorship for his club teammates. “But they're all great players, and they're adapting quickly. They're all doing so well, and I'm so proud of each and every one of them. They're all so young and they've just done so well for themselves to be here. And for us all to be here together, playing at Exploria Stadium, it's kind of ironic, but it's definitely a great opportunity.”
The presence of fellow Lions seems to be easing the learning curve.
“For sure it's great to have familiar faces that you see every single day in training. And I think it's great because we all know what each other are capable of. We go into training, we've seen each other play every single day so we know to hold each other to high expectations,” said Dike on Thursday. “You hold yourself to higher standards because you have these familiar faces around you; they push you to get better.”
Watch: Chris Mueller shines vs. El Salvador
HIGHLIGHTS: US Men's National Team vs. El Salvador | December 9, 2020
Still just 20, Dike aims to push up the United States striker depth chart with his rare blend of size, strength, mobility and finishing nous. Perea, also 20, is a dual-national who was recruited to switch allegiance from Colombia – where he was a youth national team regular – and may be on a fast track in defensive midfield thanks to his range, bite and upside.
Kreis provided an expansive overview of the trio in a Jan. 12 media availability.
“All of those players I think have had pretty breakout seasons in 2020 and all earned opportunities with us through their play with their club,” said the US Under-23 coach, who also oversees Inter Miami CF’s academy and USL League One side, Fort Lauderdale CF.
“Andres we find to be a really, really interesting holding midfield player for us,” Kreis continued. “The amount of ground that he's capable to cover defensively, I think it's a little bit different level than some of the other guys that we have in our pool. His processing of the ball, he’s still learning a little bit about that and what we're looking for in a No. 6, but he's showing marked improvement just from last camp to this camp. We can already see that he's taking on the ideas and applying himself really well.
“Daryl has some to learn, a little bit about what's different about what Orlando City wants from their strikers may be different than what we're perhaps looking for in ours. But a super, super good and eager, hungry young player who really wants to learn. You can pick up on that every time you talk to him and work with him, so eager to see how he progresses through the two weeks here.”
Michel, an Orlando homegrown, is a tad bit older (23) but his speed and flair are getting him looks on the wings, particularly as an impact substitute.
Watch: Benji Michel scores late game-winner
GOAL: Benji Michel, Orlando City SC - 84th minute
“If we look at Benji's qualities, one of the things that jumps out at you right away is his electric pace,” said Kreis. “And you saw in the games in Orlando this last year, when he would come into those games, oftentimes he was able to make a real imprint on the match. And so I think a little bit of a question mark for us will be, can he make that same sort of imprint from a starting role?”
This camp has blurred the lines between Gregg Berhalter’s senior squad and Kreis’ U-23 group a bit, complicating efforts to divine exactly where the Orlando contingent fall in the quest for first-team minutes. Sunday’s match could prove a significant data point in that regard, with Berhalter hinting on Monday that all four could take the pitch.
“With Andres, he performed really well throughout the entire camp, very stable in the defensive midfield position, able to really improve his body shape receiving balls, able to play forward. We think he did a really good job,” said the USMNT boss. “With Chris and Benji and Daryl, there's attacking threats: with speed with Benji, I think timing of his runs with Chris, and then with strength and good ability in the penalty box with Daryl. So I think they all made an impact and we're looking forward to seeing them perform against Trinidad.”
The quartet recognize that keeping Orlando on their current upward trajectory is the best way to stake individual claims for national-team opportunities in the busy year ahead.
“We put what we did in the past and we know that we just want to improve,” said Dike. “We made the playoffs for the first year this year, and we know that next year we want to win, next year we want to go farther than what we did this year, continue to improve, improve. And it starts now. It starts in the offseason.”