Battle Cat to Lion: Cyle Larin's rise to soccer stardom with Orlando City

Richmond Laryea heard a strange noise from the front door recently at the house he shares with Cyle Larin. It sounded like someone was trying to maneuver a very large object through the door, and was failing miserably.

Laryea got to the door just in time to see Larin finally get a huge package through the entryway. It was a complete set of keyboards and a stand.

“Cyle just stood there, laughing,” Laryea recalled.

For Larin, Orlando City SC’s highly regarded striker, the moment gives an alternative look at a player who has rapidly become one of Major League Soccer's marquee names, who this week was named the top player in MLS under the age of 24, and who is sure to be courted by foreign clubs sooner rather than later.

“There have been no direct offers to date, but I know there is interest and European teams have watched him. It’s something we are going to have to live with for a while,” admitted Orlando’s founding owner Phil Rawlins. “If he continues to develop for the next few years, he’s a very interesting prospect indeed, and it’s easy to see there will be continued interest in him from Europe.”

That level already seems undisputed – listen to former MLS and US national team striker Brian McBride, now a pundit with ESPN, and the sky definitely is the limit – but Larin still remains something of an enigma, a well-rounded predator on the field, but unassuming, almost shy, off it.

As it turns out – and as Larin's childhood friend and now pro teammate Laryea already knows – there is a completely different side to the kid from Brampton, Ontario, who is fast becoming Canada’s biggest soccer export of all time.

Where it all began

Unsurprisingly, it started with soccer, it blossomed with soccer, and now it is a full-blown soccer romance of family proportions.

“When we were younger, I had a good group of friends that enjoyed soccer and were all good players as well,” Larin explained. “It was just a bunch of young guys having fun, it was what we did. The aim was obviously to win games, but it was really just fun. Things did get serious, though, and a lot of the guys wanted to make a career out of it, so that’s how it all started.”

With his size, physique and apparent natural instinct for scoring goals, Larin just had to be a striker from the word go, right? Not quite.

“For my club team, I actually played goalie,” Larin admitted. “I played center back for a bit, and then I played striker. I think I played in every position. The first time I played competitively, I actually played in basketball shoes.

“I played up front in that game and scored three goals, and that was when I knew I really wanted to be a striker. That was when I started to feel it, when you score and you get that excitement, and after that I stuck in that position. That was my club team in Brampton. That was when it all really started for me.”

Cyle Larin wrestles with Orlando City captain Kaka during a light moment in training. Photo via Mark Thorstenson / Orlando City

Larin was just eight, but for the next three years he would be the star of the Brampton Battle Cats, catching the eye of the highly professional Sigma Academy in nearby Mississauga.

That’s when things would get really tough for the Larin household, with an estranged father, a full-time working mom and three children to support. Patricia Larin was the glue in the family, a French-Canadian of Jamaican parents, who recognized that Sigma represented a major opportunity for her oldest son.

“My mom said if I listen to these guys, I’m going to become a professional one day,” Larin admitted. So that’s what he did, going to training four times a week from the age of 12 and quickly developing into a formidable force. “I think I just had an instinct for scoring and Sigma helped me develop that skill, showing me how to create chances for myself in the box. They really tuned my skills.”

All that work was a strain for a family that didn’t have a lot, though. For Cyle, there was much traveling, and, in a rare moment of reminiscence, he admitted it was his mom who made it all happen.

“She had to work, all the time, and take care of my brother and sister,” he said. “She sacrificed a lot for us and without her I wouldn’t be where I am today. When I started getting serious [in soccer], I could see it was a way to take care of my family, because we came from nothing.”

To a large extent, it explains his reserved, serious demeanor. When you talk to anyone around him, the two words that first come up are “quiet” and “humble.”

Orlando's Cyle Larin walks into Camping World Stadium ahead of an MLS match with one of his brothers. Photo via Mark Thorstenson / Orlando City

The Silent Giant

Orlando head coach Jason Kreis admits he has rarely come across anyone – especially a striker – as unobtrusive as Larin. “He is a very, very quiet person, very humble, very eager, I think, to take steps forward,” Kreis observed.

“But Cyle is also extremely gifted. His potential is sky high, and I’m one of his biggest fans. Through the history of the league, there have been a few very, very good, bigger-bodied type strikers who also possess the ability to run in behind with pace, and the ability to break you down and dribble as well. I think Cyle knows his potential.”

Teammate Luke Boden echoes his coach’s thoughts on the 6-foot-2 striker who earned the nickname "The Silent Giant" with Sigma.

“Yes, he is a quiet guy, but he is a very nice guy,” Boden insisted. “But he can also be very funny and he is not afraid to laugh at himself. You can also see him starting to have more influence on the field if things are not going right. He is prepared to speak up and push players into getting things right.”

Laryea is the player who knows Larin, best, though. The Lions’ top pick in this year’s SuperDraft, Laryea hails from Toronto and is also a Generation adidas signing. More importantly, he was a Sigma teammate of Larin’s for seven years.

“I’ve known Cyle since he was 10,” Laryea confirmed. “We saw each other a lot during training, and his mom’s very close with my parents and we always helped each other out. Soccer was big for us, but I don’t think either of us really knew what it would be. It was just a common interest with the friends we had back home. When we got into high school, in our sophomore year, that’s when everything really kicked in.

“A lot of our friends were growing up and looking at the pros. Two guys we both looked up to were Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman, who got drafted in 2013 [by Toronto] while we were still in high school, and then Jordan Hamilton went to the pros early in 2014 [also with Toronto], so it showed us what was possible. We were watching closely and thinking ‘We could do that.’ We thought soccer could take us to the pros, so it became pretty serious.”

The No. 1 pick in the 2015 SuperDraft, Cyle Larin went on to win Rookie of the Year honors with a 17-goal debut season in 2015. He quickly reached double digits again in 2016. Photo via Mark Thorstenson / Orlando City

Laryea also confirms the "Silent Giant" aspect of Larin’s nature, but insists that is the face he shows mainly in public. “Cyle has always been quiet, but whenever he is around our group of friends, he is definitely a lot louder and more active,” Laryea insisted. “Most people would be surprised how outgoing he is. He is one of the first guys to say ‘Let’s go and do this or that’.

“To be honest, he is still the same person from when we were 10. You could say he is more serious, but even growing up he was one of the guys who took every training session seriously. He always held himself accountable and would be the one who tried to set the tempo, always looking to learn.”

The one thing that has surprised Laryea, though, is how quickly Larin has taken to the professional ranks. “When I first came here and saw Cyle training, it was clear his work ethic had got even better,” Laryea said. “I saw him go through the MLS Player Combine, trying to get fit for preseason, and I saw a different player.

“That first year of MLS really helped him, too. He was in the gym every day, stepping up his game. If you watch training, he is always one of the top players, the most energetic and focused. It caught me off guard a little, seeing how much he had grown up.”

Larin is still keeping careful track of his steps to date. Despite being the No. 1 SuperDraft pick last year, he did not feature at all in the first game of Orlando’s MLS history. He was well down the depth chart for the opening month, until injuries opened the door. The big striker finally started his first professional game at Portland on April 12 – and scored his first goal.

Since then, he has bagged another 30 goals in 48 starts, and his goals-per-shots ratio – 23.6 percent - is among the best in the league. Bradley Wright-Phillips, who leads the Golden Boot race with 18 this season, currently scores at a 21.4 percent rate, while the ratio of reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco ratio is only 10 percent.

“My first game I didn’t even make the 18,” Larin recalled. “But I remember the Houston game the following week. I was getting ready to come on and the ref blew the whistle and it was all over. Then I finally got my debut [off the bench] against Vancouver. That was a very physical game, a lot faster than I thought. It took me a bit of time, but, once I caught on to the physicality, I started scoring, and it was a lot better. From then, I just kept going.

“I think I can still be in better shape and I think I have a lot more to work on, finishing wise. Just getting behind defenders and making better runs; it all comes with time, so I just need to keep working.”

Cyle Larin is congratulated by Kaka after picking up more hardware at Orlando City's 2015 Awards Gala in October 2015, when he claimed the club's top scorer and top rookie awards. Photo via Mark Thorstenson / Orlando City

What next for Larin?

With the growth curve he's experienced in just 19 months, it does beg the question, how good can Larin really be? McBride, a World Cup veteran, is the ideal person to ask, after 11 years with Columbus and Chicago in MLS, plus seven seasons in Europe with Wolfsburg, Preston, Everton and Fulham.

McBride is a gold standard for MLS center forwards, and sees a lot of himself in Larin. “He is not just a big bruiser who doesn’t have technical abilities,” McBride insisted. “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.

“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.”

McBride also sees a clear way forward for Larin in the years to come, if he continues to learn his trade. “Cyle understands the physicality of the game,” he pointed out. “He is good with his back to goal, which is almost unique these days, and the way I was as a player, he also has more pace than I ever had. You can see he is continuing to grow and, all in all, I think he is unique in MLS terms.”

The former Fulham favorite does sound one note of caution, though, in assessing all the chatter about interest from abroad. “If I was in his shoes, I’d be looking to focus on continued growth and enjoying the pluses around him, especially with a player like Kaká,” McBride said. “If you are in England, you are not going to be playing with a past World Player of the Year.

“Moving to a European club is another challenge and a whole different style of play. At Wolfsburg, I was nowhere near strong enough mentally to deal with a completely different culture and sitting on the bench when I thought I should be starting. If you think you’re ready, do it, but if you know you’re not ready, it may not be the right move ... I don’t think Cyle is there yet.”

Orlando City forward Cyle Larin salutes the home crowd at Camping World Stadium after a match. Photo via Mark Thorstenson / Orlando City

For now, Larin is content with his lot in Florida. He still misses his family back in Brampton, but they keep in constant contact via Facetime and visit for games several times a year. His 19-year-old brother is at junior college in Fort Lauderdale, hence much closer, and he still speaks to his dad every week in Toronto.

He is also aware of the benefits. “Orlando’s a very nice place to be, a very quiet place, very relaxing,” he admitted. “I can go out shopping and I’ve been to Universal Studios a few times. I go out with the team for dinner and it is very enjoyable. Otherwise I just like relaxing at home, being by the pool and putting my feet up.”

But how does that explain his newfound interest in keyboards? He laughs. “I love music, when I was young, I used to play drums and was really into music, but it got too expensive. So now I have some time and my little brother, who is seven, is learning piano, so I may have started because of that, too. I just like how it sounds and I’d like to be able to play properly.”

Does he see it becoming a side gig? “No!” Larin chuckled again. “It’s just a hobby. My job is to score goals for my team, and that’s what makes me happy.”

For Rawlins, Kreis and Orlando City, they will be hoping Larin stays happy for some time to come.

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