Orlando's Daryl Dike is ahead of schedule; a US national team call is due | Charles Boehm

Daryl Dike solo - Orlando City SC

One of the most wondrous phenomena I’ve experienced in this sport is a talented young player showing exceptional ability and forcing the world around them – by the sheer power of their quality – to recognize it.

Maybe the first example I can remember is Michael Owen, the “baby-faced assassin” who became England’s youngest-ever player at a World Cup, and turned out to be arguably their best performer, at France '98. Canadian observers will immediately think of Alphonso Davies’ meteoric ascent with the Vancouver Whitecaps and their national team. And I was lucky enough to have a good vantage point when Christian Pulisic blew away even the loftiest expectations after he was promoted to the full US men’s national team in the back end of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure.

I may be doing Daryl Dike no favors with even an implicit comparison to the aforementioned names (and he’s already older than they were at the time of their breakouts). But it’s time to talk about this young man’s international career.

Orlando City SC’s strapping rookie striker is in fine form as they enjoy their best season in MLS. He turned in a man-of-the-match display against Atlanta United Wednesday night, bagging a goal and an assist and generally terrorizing the woebegone Five Stripes in the 4-1 win. The result capped an undefeated 2-0-2 mark for the Lions against ATLUTD this season, a welcome palate cleanser after three years of misery at the Georgians’ hands.

Dike now has six goals and four assists in 1,049 minutes to date, impressive productivity considering that he’s still a fairly raw prospect in the eyes of many evaluators. Orlando kept him waiting in the wings for much of 2020; he was a lightly-used sub at the MLS is Back Tournament and didn’t make his first league appearance until Aug. 22. Head coach Oscar Pareja has explained this slow build as a calculated effort to keep Dike grounded and prime him for success at this level, and it seems to be working as intended.

While El Profe may not appreciate me advocating for an accelerated timeline, I’m ready to drop this onto that other kind of timeline: #Dike4USMNT.

Hot take? I’m not so sure. The 20-year-old looks well-suited to work as an understudy and eventual successor to Jozy Altidore, whom US coach Gregg Berhalter has acknowledged “is probably still the most talented that we have in that position,” albeit tortured by injury woes. Both are powerful and athletic, move intelligently and are adept at bringing teammates into the game, all key traits for the spearhead in Berhalter’s system.

Altidore’s Toronto FC teammate Ayo Akinola has at times seemed the prime heir to that role. Yet he too has been injury-wracked and if rumblings out of the Great White North are to be believed, could soon switch his allegiance to Canada.

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Dual eligibility is a factor in Dike’s case, too. His Nigerian heritage has placed him on the Super Eagles’ radar and two of his older siblings, brother Bright and sister Courtney, played for their ancestral land. Bright, in fact, was on course to be part of Nigeria’s 2014 World Cup squad before an untimely torn Achilles ruined that plan.

Beyond the “where,” I suspect Daryl’s ascent to international competition is probably a question of “when” more than “if.” He’s got all the tools to be an elite No. 9 and appears to be gobbling up the instruction and experience that can help him make the most of them. And while Berhalter would probably like to take a gradualist approach similar to Pareja’s, the circumstances here call for swifter action.

The United States’ senior squad and Under-23 teams are in for a fast and furious 2021, with the rescheduled Olympic slate, Gold Cup and condensed World Cup qualifying calendar posing real challenges to the planning and periodization processes, as well as the depth and readiness of the player pool. Add in the vagaries of convincing clubs to release players when they don’t have to and the all-too-likely prospect of continued quarantine periods around call-ups, and Berhalter and U-23s coach Jason Kreis are going to need every talented body they can find.

Maybe in less unprecedented times I’d be pumping the brakes on this hype train. But time is a fleeting commodity in this case. Dike needs to get a long, close look as soon as travel conditions allow him to participate in a USMNT camp.