Voices: Sam Jones

Orlando City's rookie sensation Daryl Dike on his journey to belonging and his national team aspirations | Sam Jones

Daryl Dike - Orlando City SC - are you not entertained?

Superman is boring. 

When the main character can’t lose, it’s hard to create a sense of anxiety about their future. But people still love Superman. No matter what character traits you might have, Supes has the best version of them. It’s something to aspire to.

Daryl Dike isn’t Superman, and that lede is saccharine and hacky. But it’s hard to keep away from talking about Dike this way when you talk to him or the people around him. He’s got what you don’t. 

At the very least, he looks the part. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds of muscle, the 20-year-old is already listed on FIFA as the second-strongest player in the world. Yes, the whole world. Now, no one has access to every player’s one-rep max on the bench, but the rating is understandable when you see Dike on the field. He looks and moves like a battleship. His teammates seem comically small in comparison.

He looks like a linebacker. As a kid from Edmond, an Oklahoma City suburb, it’s almost shocking he isn’t one. But Dike, the youngest of five, had no choice. His parents, both Nigerian immigrants, played soccer. They also play a little tennis and badminton as well. And even though the alternate universe where Daryl is lodging a shuttlecock into an opponent’s thigh off a volley out of sheer force sounds amazing, soccer was always the focus. Matches were always on the living room TV in the Dikes' apartment. 

By the time Daryl came around, his brothers and sisters had already begun to make a name for themselves in Oklahoma’s soccer community. His brother, Bright, would go on to be the 12th pick of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, play four seasons in the league and spend time with Nigeria’s national team. His sister, Courtney, played four years at Oklahoma State and eventually featured in the World Cup for Nigeria. Of course Daryl was going to play soccer. 

He also literally had no choice. His parents wouldn’t let him on a football field despite pleas from local coaches. Too dangerous. Sometimes that even applied to soccer. At 16, Daryl’s club team went to play a USL League Two team made up of college players. His mom requested that he not play out of safety concerns. Daryl was already a giant on the field, and at the same age his brother Bright broke the arm of an opposing goalkeeper in the Oklahoma state tournament ... on a shot. To everyone else, it was unclear who the safety concerns should actually be for. 

If Bright’s story shows anything, the concerns should have belonged to the goalkeepers. Especially considering that Daryl tried to emulate Bright on the field. 

“When I first started playing soccer, even when I was 4, I'd always be like, ‘Oh, I want to be like, Bright. I want to play like Bright.’ I always got to see him go to the little soccer complex next to our house and he’d play his games and I'd be sitting there watching the games on the sideline,” Daryl said. “I've always been like that. I've always wanted to play soccer. I've always kind of wanted to be like my brother.”

Thirteen years apart, Bright already had multiple years of professional experience by the time Daryl began to make a name for himself in Oklahoma. To help out with costs, Bright would send his used cleats to Daryl. Despite having the same frame and a desire to be like his brother, Daryl used his brother’s cleats differently. Well, at least eventually. 

Bright wanted to overpower opponents and score goals, not much else. At the beginning, that’s all Daryl had in his arsenal. Longtime club coach and family friend Jesse Faily even deemed him “Fulton Reed” after the Mighty Ducks character with a wicked slapshot. To most, Daryl was just a big body.

“At the beginning I was like, ‘Oh, darn, I guess I'm just the big guy,’” Dike said. “But you know, it kind of pushed me to integrate more things. More brains, more movements and technique and other things like that to kind of show people that I'm not just the big man.”

Slowly, he became a more complete player and provded the folly of that early pigeon-holing. And he’s still rapidly improving at areas that don’t involve bullying a defender off the ball. It helps that he’s not only stronger than you, he’s probably smarter than you too. That’s in soccer IQ and the regular kind. As a teenager, he spent mornings at Faily’s house watching game tape as they’d pause, rewind and analyze everything they could. On weekdays, he worked tirelessly to maintain his 4.24 GPA. That’s pretty much par for the course, since his sisters Brittny and Kim are both doctors. 

Daryl wasn’t on the med school path while at the University of Virginia, but school still took priority. Now, even during his rookie season, Dike is still making school a priority. Before Daryl could leave UVA for the MLS SuperDraft on a Generation adidas deal, Daryl’s mother made sure he’d be able to finish his degree.

While learning to be a professional soccer player, Dike has been enrolled in online classes at Southern New Hampshire University, a challenge he doesn’t take lightly. After Orlando’s other-worldly Round One win over NYCFC last Saturday, Daryl went home and did homework. 

Oh, and did I mention he’s nice? Like, overwhelmingly nice. Friendly to the point where even if you tried to hate him, you’d come away from a conversation telling people about your new pal Daryl. When he got drafted, he sent two brand new Orlando jersey’s to Faily’s twins, just because. The other day, Faily couldn’t find his phone until he discovered his 9-year-old daughter grilling Daryl about Disney World. Daryl had been patiently answering questions for 35 minutes. 

Oh, and he’s frugal. When Faily and Bright were with Daryl to celebrate the night before draft day, Faily offered to take him anywhere he wanted for dinner. Daryl thought and suggested Blaze, a make your own pizza chain.

“We’re not going to Blaze. I was thinking somewhere nice,” Faily said. 

Daryl thought for a moment 

“...What about Qdoba?”

Dike is all these things, but he isn’t going to win every time. He’s not going to be better at every single thing. A lot of things maybe, but not everything. And he’s not always going to know that what comes next will come easy for him. He’s never going to put on a cape.

For all that’s promising about Dike, he can still improve his hold-up play, he can find the net more often, he can create more off the dribble and he has a long way to go to reach his full potential. Even with an impressive first season and bigger games ahead, you get the sense that he’s not quite as assured as you think he’d be. Through every trait, he’s still a 20-year-old college student from an apartment in suburban Oklahoma who played for his high school team instead of growing up in an academy. 

“I think from a young age, you see all these kids in the developmental academy systems and all these academies and people signing Homegrown contracts and people getting MLS caps at a young age and things like that. And, you know, for lack of a better term, I mean, it kind of makes, you're kind of sitting there almost kind of jealous, if that makes sense,” Dike said. “It's kind of like, ‘Wow, I wish I could be like them’ or you start kind of doubting yourself a little bit and saying like, ‘Oh wow. If I'm not playing at those teams how am I going to make it?’”

You hear that and look at Dike now, and it feels like you’ve been told he’s not allowed to play because the other team might be too big. To everyone else, it’s never been Dike who should be worried here. And at each stop, along the way, that’s proven true. It was evident at Virginia on his way to become a third-team All-American. And it's been evident, too, at Orlando on his way to one of the most exciting rookie seasons in league history.

He’s also eyeing a national team call-in, should one soon emerge. 

“I told him a guy from MLS wanted to do an interview,” Faily said. “Daryl asked me not to roast him. He said, ‘Just tell him I’m a good kid, I work hard and I want to play for a national team.”

Whether that’s for the United States or Nigeria remains to be seen, but he’s on his way to having his pick of either. Despite everything that’s impressive about Dike, when he makes that pick, it won’t come easy. Not at first anyway. That would be boring. 

“At the beginning in Orlando, I was sitting there thinking ‘OK, this is a little hard.’ Now there's things that even two months ago are so much easier than now, than they were two months ago,” Dike said. “I think the thing is, as you go from step to step to step to step, you get more comfortable. You get more comfortable in saying, ‘OK, I think I can kind of belong here.’"