Cyle Larin turned 22 this past week, and he’s already hit more than a few milestones in his burgeoning career: No. 1 pick in the MLS SuperDraft, MLS Rookie of the Year and all-time rookie scoring king, a full international debut with the Canadian national team as a teenager.
And then there’s the rare experience of playing against his childhood idol.
“When I was younger I loved to watch [Didier] Drogba, and I’ve played against him now,” Larin recalled with a chuckle in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “That was a great time.”
Comparisons of any kind with an all-world legend like Drogba are perilous. But that’s the territory Larin has reached as he forges into his third season as a professional.
With six strikes in six games this year, Orlando City SC’s showpiece striker has already bagged 37 goals in 65 MLS matches, averaging 0.67 goals per game. That figure is roughly comparable to Drogba’s 0.75 goals every 90 minutes in his two seasons with the Montreal Impact and one that merely hints at the Brompton, Ontario native’s value and all-around skillset.
“He’s great with his back to goal. I think he’s, if not the best, one of the best inside the [penalty] box in this league,” said Eddie Johnson, the retired US international who recorded 71 league goals and 21 assists over a decade-long run in MLS sandwiched around European adventures in England, Wales and Greece.
“He can hold the ball up, he can score with his head, he can score with his left foot, he can score with his right foot.”
Blessed with attributes similar to City’s rising star, Johnson faced many of the same challenges that lie ahead for Larin. The two have gotten acquainted since Johnson moved to Orlando after his own playing career was brought to a premature close in 2015 by a heart condition, and “EJ” sees a level of potential in Larin that has few equals in MLS history.
“Getting to know him last year, and not only the caliber of player he is on the field – how he is off the field, being a young guy and dealing with a lot of early success, how he’s been able to handle it and be humble has been awesome to witness and experience,” said Johnson, who starred in Dallas, Kansas City, Seattle and D.C. but also walked a rocky path in search of consistency and stability.
“I think Cyle Larin’s proven, two years in a row, that the first season wasn’t a fluke. He came back and he scored double digits [in 2016] and it seems like every year he’s getting more confident… and he’s at a very good age. He’s already accomplished a lot so far in the minimal time he’s been in MLS.”
Tall, powerfully built, but also possessed of quick feet, open-field speed and a lightning-quick release on his shot, Larin carries all the traits of a modern No. 9.
“He has attributes you don’t necessarily see in a straight-out center forward, kind of a new-wave player, but also someone who really understands his role on the team,” retired USMNT and MLS great Brian McBride told MLSsoccer.com last year.
“He’s good at occupying two center backs and, even when the ball gets moved, he is not standing on one defender, he is getting in between them, getting on their shoulders. And, when he gets into the penalty area, that’s when you see the advantage he creates – he gets that split second of freedom and he is very good at capitalizing.”
Larin showed a surprisingly clinical edge to his finishing when he burst onto the MLS scene in 2015, and he’s also proved a quick study in tactical terms. He mostly worked as a lone striker in his first two seasons before shifting to a partnership with Carlos Rivas as Orlando coach Jason Kreis’ has switched between his trademark 4-4-2 diamond and a flat 4-4-2 formation this year.
“With two strikers you’re oftentimes asking him to do more,” Kreis said this week, “which may seem odd, but you’re asking him to do more movement when we have the ball, and to make more runs, basically, in front of the goal; into corners, and when he gets the ball, to combine with players around him and occasionally run the ball at defenders.
“In my opinion it’s good for him that we’re playing a different system, and he’s adapting to it quite well. I believe he’s enjoying it – he looks like he’s enjoying it.”
Handed an extensive workout regimen over the winter, Larin embraced the challenge and reported to preseason leaner and fitter than before. Both he and Kreis see and feel the difference.
“Over the two years I’ve been here, I’ve kept growing, and I kept working hard to make sure I get better every day and each game,” said Larin. “I’m ready for this year and I want to score a lot of goals and hopefully help my team win something.
“The more games I’ve played, I’ve started to get a feel for defenders over the years,” he added. “I’m building confidence every time I score. So it’s not getting easier, but I’m getting quicker.”
Kreis knows a thing or two about elite forward play. He was once MLS’ top marksman, scoring 108 career goals over the league’s first decade of existence, a mark that stood as the all-time record for three years before Jaime Moreno passed him in 2007.
“Well, he’s miles ahead of where I was at his age, there’s no doubt about that,” Kreis said when asked to compare his own trajectory to Larin’s. “He joined the league quite a bit earlier, he’s got more of a natural striker’s tendency than I had … His potential is still sky, sky-high and I don’t think he’s even close to it yet.
“He’s doing a lot of things now to become a more complete striker and he’s improved in a lot of those areas. But he’s still got a ways to go.”
For all of Larin’s exploits to this point, that “P” word – potential – still gets dropped around him a lot. It’s a testament to the enormous upside that has kept European scouts following his every move for some time now. But what about the present? Hasn’t he already proved himself as the top striker in MLS, or close to it?
“I still think that it’s not a question about where he is in the league,” maintained Kreis. “The more interesting question is where he relative to his own potential. … He’s still got a lot of learning to do about his movement when we have the ball, and his movement when we don’t have the ball, and why those things are happening; being able to maintain a focus and a high intensity level for 90 minutes.”
To whom much is given, much is expected. Larin’s age and bountiful talent naturally tempt observers to look ahead to a brighter future, quite possibly at the risk of underrating his achievements to date. Like Kreis, prolific New England Revolution goalscorer turned ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman carries lofty hopes for Larin and is now eager to see him hone subtler aspects of his craft, like his consistency and mentality in high-stakes situations.
“I’m not sure he's underappreciated because he's ‘the guy’ for Orlando,” Twellman told MLSsoccer.com when asked whether MLS watchers take Larin for granted. “His hold-up play is improving week by week, but there are still games you don't notice him and at the next level he can't afford that.
“Can he push it to another level? That will be key, because if he can become an every-week goalscorer and important player, then Europe is his next move.”
Media reports regularly link Larin to big-name clubs across the Atlantic. But he’s currently under a multi-year contract with the Lions and neither he nor his club seem in any rush to cash in or make the leap. Both Kreis and Johnson – who confesses that he felt pressured to join Fulham in 2008, a move that didn’t really pan out – warn that proper timing is key.
“He has to perform well here in order to get an opportunity to go to the biggest stage in the world. So he’s focused on what he can control, which are his performances with us,” said Kreis. “And then the question of when is the right time for that to happen? And I think that it’s still a ways away.
“In my career I’ve seen strikers go over there too early, and then because they go over there too early, they fail. They fail. They come back and they’ve wasted a couple of years of their development, because they haven’t been able to play in matches. And I think he thinks the same thing, that he needs to wait for the right opportunity and for the right time.”
Larin has plenty on his plate in 2017, with Orlando’s season, their first in their noisy new stadium, and CONCACAF Gold Cup action with Canada this summer. As the first MLS team to win their first four matches in their new digs, with scalps including the likes of New York City FC and the LA Galaxy, Orlando have already given more than a hint at their title ambitions.
And with goals in four of Orlando City's first six matches, Larin will be a key figure if the Lions are going to fulfill the early-season potential and make the postseason for the first time in club history.