If all goes as Lions forward Benji Michel hopes, the newcomers will be tossed aside when an all-Sunshine State rivalry returns to MLS.
“Both teams are definitely not going to hold back – we're at least not going to hold back because we want to prove that Florida is purple and will stay purple,” Michel told MLSsoccer.com by phone Sunday. “I think it'll be a very interesting game, knowing that we're both in the state of Florida and who's the boss of Florida.”
Michel’s perspective comes as one of Orlando’s four Homegrown Players, signing a first-team deal in 2018 after shining at the University of Portland. His soccer upbringing knew only one MLS team in Florida, with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion folding before his kindergarten years, though that equation now changes.
It’s an anticipated moment for the 22-year-old, who recalled seeing Orlando’s first-ever MLS game, a 1-1 draw against NYCFC before 62,000-plus at the Citrus Bowl, and the Lions’ USL days when now-teammate Dom Dwyer was scoring for fun.
“This is a really good opportunity for us, because there's a lot on the line,” Michel said. “If you win the tournament, you get a berth to [Concacaf] Champions League. So we want to win the tournament, that's our number one goal.”
Michel added that there’s healthy pressure on Orlando as the de-facto hosts, with games at the nearby ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. They were the second team to arrive and begin the health and safety protocols, introducing a new phase to the forward’s pandemic lifestyle.
Michel said he thought the season pause was going to last a few days, and then it quickly turned into a few months. He spent it with teammate and roommate Kamal Miller, and often played video games.
They went for runs twice a day, focused on eating better and returned to socially-distanced training sessions feeling physically fit. Now, Michel said, the challenge is discovering game fitness after what’ll be a fourth-month gap between MLS games after Orlando started 0-1-1.
“It's something you're going to have to make the most of when games get underway,” Michel said. “Once you get back into it, it's hard because you haven't played a game in a while at game speed.”
While squad rotation is inevitable, both in Group A and elsewhere, Michel has earned trust from new head coach Oscar Pareja. He started the Lions’ first two games of 2020, following up on a five-goal, one-assist season as a rookie.
But Michel, who said he eyes a spot on the US U-23 national team at the Summer Olympics in 2021, knows he’s not a finished product. Sparked by conversations with Pareja and an offseason training stint at Brazilian club Atletico Paranaense, he focused on improving technically and not relying on pace or power.
“The technical part, for sure,” Michel said of constructive conversations with Pareja. “How can I be sharper on the ball and how can I stay on my toes? My positioning is something we improved on after watching film, and also my awareness on the field. Those are three or four things we've really worked on.”
Nani returning from suspension complicates matters for Michel, as does the form of Chris Mueller, Tesho Akindele and others. There’s also the context of Orlando’s MLS history, with the club failing to make the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs during their first five seasons. Proving that 2020 will be different, combined with Pareja and a recharged roster, could start with the Miami match. It’s a rivalry in the making, one with extra meaning.
“In the group we all have trust in each other, we have each other's backs,” Michel said. “It's good pressure, not something to be scared of. It's like, 'OK, let's make our mark on this tournament. Let's show MLS what we're capable of.'"