It was just a slip of the tongue, or perhaps a Freudian slip.
Daryl Dike was reflecting on the last 14 months or so, something he’s finally had the chance to do quite a bit of lately. With some time off in August to nurse lasting injuries and reset mentally, it was his first real chance to take a step back, be introspective and think about all the milestones he's reached in short order. Dike did a lot of thinking. He considered where he's arrived, how far he's come and how desperately he wants to keep going.
“On the mental side, a lot has happened in a career – I’m sorry,” Dike said in a phone interview with MLSsoccer.com, “a year.”
He can be forgiven for the miscue. It’s truly been a whirlwind for Orlando City SC’s 21-year-old star.
Upon returning from Gold Cup duty with the US men's national team at the beginning of August, battling tendinitis as he had been for a while as well as other knocks that come from playing essentially 14 months straight with no real break, plus a shoulder injury that limited his play with Gregg Berhalter's team, he was given some time off to recover.
Physically, it did the trick, as his body got closer to 100% than he’s been in months. That fitness was on display in his first start back against Columbus Crew last week, in which he grabbed a goal and an assist in a 3-2 Lions win, but it may have been even more impactful for his mentality.
“Mentally it was great for me to reset,” Dike said. “I really needed that. I’m happy the staff and everybody were able to give me that time. I basically just tried to go back to my roots, go back to things I went away from. Hung out with some friends, went back to playing video games, watching sports. Doing things that freed up my brain instead of always thinking soccer, training, [asking myself] how can I improve. Just taking a step back was good for me.”
Dike made his Orlando City debut in July 2020 at the MLS is Back Tournament. His career absolutely exploded from there.
The American forward, who played college soccer earlier that fall at the University of Virginia and was sometimes not even high enough on Orlando's depth chart to be involved in 11-v-11 drills during preseason, got his opportunity, furiously grabbed it with both fists and refused to let go. He went from intriguing youngster to integral piece on a playoff team – then to joining USMNT camp following Orlando’s playoff exit.
Last February he secured a deadline day loan to Barnsley in England's second tier, where he excelled immediately. He led the midtable club straight up the standings into the promotion playoffs, from 12th to 6th with nine goals in 19 league games (13 starts).
Though Barnsley couldn't get past the promotion playoff semifinal round, Dike was impressive in that run, and his form with the Tykes led to reports of widespread transfer interest seemingly from most Premier League clubs as well as the richest Championship sides. A club-record move to Europe seemed a foregone conclusion when he linked up with the national team again for a friendly ahead of the Nations League.
“It’s funny. Of course some things were true, but, yeah, there were some things people were saying were very, very false,” Dike said. “It goes both ways.”
A move never materialized, and for a player who has accomplished so much seemingly out of nowhere in little more than a year, much of the conversation around him has now shifted to things that haven’t happened.
Yet he isn't worried. There's sure to be continued interest from abroad this winter and both he and Orlando will revisit the situation then.
“With the transfers, whatever will be best for me will come,” Dike said. “I’m perfectly happy. I’m happy being here, I love the fans, I love the team, I love everything. Now it’s pushing on. How can I help us win MLS Cup? How can I help us win everything?”
Another thing that didn't happen amid Dike's meteoric rise? Claiming the USMNT's starting No. 9 role.
After being with the team before Nations League, he returned later that month expecting to be a pivotal piece for the Gold Cup squad. It didn't quite work out as planned on the field, with the shoulder injury hampering his performance. He was then left off the USMNT's first World Cup qualifying roster this month.
“When the squad comes out, knowing myself, I’m a competitor and always want to push through things. Of course I always want to be included,” Dike said. “I want to be included in every single camp, every single game, every single roster. But I realized what I’ve been going through recently with the knocks, but for me it’s more fuel. I know how it feels to be injured, so it’s a learning experience.”
The United States stumbled a bit out of the Octagonal gate, drawing their first two matches, but then romped Honduras 4-1 on Wednesday night to close September's three-game window. Fellow MLS-based wonderkid Ricardo Pepi scored on his debut. And now the Oklahoma native wants in.
“For me, it's pushing myself on the field – technically, mentally, everything — to make it impossible for anyone to leave me out of any roster,” Dike said. “To be so good that it’d take something crazy to not be on a roster. I’m in the right place, the right situation to push myself to be that kind of player.”
One step at a time.
Orlando have plenty of games until then, starting Friday against rivals Atlanta United (7 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes). With Dike back and fit, they are approaching full strength for the first time all year, essentially. The Lions are second in the Eastern Conference standings, battling with Nashville SC, New York City FC and more for positioning with 12 games to play.
“At full strength, Orlando City can do anything,” Dike said. “We can climb to the top of the table, we can win MLS Cup. Seeing how many players have been in and out of the team [this season], and we’re still in second!”
The rest of 2021 will be a continuation of Dike's rise, which shows no signs of stopping. Sometimes it's difficult to remember it truly is just the beginning, merely a year and a half into a hugely promising professional career.
“It’s been 14 months but it’s only been 14 months, you know?” Dike said. “Things will continue changing. I’ll have so many experiences, it’s great. I’m honored to be a part of it. I enjoy the whirlwind and chaos of it.”