The Orlando City Soccer Club Lions finished the 2011 season as the undisputed kings of the USL PRO division. They had the league’s top scoring defense and third most potent scoring attack. They had the USL PRO Coach of the Year in Adrian Heath who regularly fielded Miguel Gallardo (USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year), Rob Valentino (USL PRO Defender of the Year), and League MVP Yordany Alvarez. They won the USL PRO regular season and Championship titles. They did it all.
Unfortunately, it felt like sometime between Devorn Jorsling’s winning penalty kick in the Championship Game and the popping of the champagne that standout Orlando City players were on their way to trials with MLS squads. And it wasn’t long before their quality shone through and the players were inking top flight contracts – Lawrence Olum with Sporting Kansas City, Lewis Neal with DC United and Yordany Alvarez with Real Salt Lake.
This was a devastating blow to the Lion’s midfield. But there was a silver lining. The promotion of these players was a great example of USL PRO being a “minor-league” feeder for Major League Soccer. Additionally, the number of Lion’s players getting the call up further illustrated the quality program Orlando City was running and made them attractive to aspiring players.
And it looks as if players took notice. Going into the 2012 preseason, Orlando City replaced Olum, Neal and Alvarez in the midfield with James O’Connor, Anthony Pulis and John Rooney. O’Connor is the senior of this group at 32-years old, having played at the top two levels of English football for the majority of his career during which time he made 484 appearances for senior clubs. Anthony Pulis has also spent the majority of his career at the top two levels of English football, previously playing for Portsmouth, Stoke City and Southampton. John Rooney comes to Orlando with four years of professional experience having most recently played for the New York Red Bulls in the MLS last season.
To get this trio of players on the field and make best use of their talents, Coach Heath has gone to a 4-2-3-1 formation this preseason. This allows the experienced and hard hitting O’Connor and Pulis to fill the two defensive midfield positions and for Rooney to play in the attacking midfield position where he can use his creative passing to spring the lone striker and outside midfielders through on goal. Filling the outside midfield and forward positions are returning players Max Griffin and Jamie Watson, who finished third and sixth respectively last year in USL PRO for goals scored, Dennis Chin, Matt Luzunaris, Kevin Molino, Charlie Campbell and player/coach Ian Fuller.
The Lions are also returning all of the primary members that made up last year’s league leading defense. This includes Miguel Gallardo and Sean Kelley in goal, and Rob Valentino, Kieron Bernard, Jerome Mechack , Luke Boden, Wes Allen and Eric Ustruck in defense. There were two defensive off-season signings, 22-year old defender Kyle Davies and 23-year old Justin Clark. Davies was previously captain of the United States Under-20 team and looks to have fit in nicely alongside Rob Valentino in central defense. Clark is a local Rollins College alum who was 2011 Sunshine State Conference Defender of the Year and Third-Team All-American.
In case you missed it, the new additions and formation have worked well for the Lions. Orlando City once again challenged themselves this offseason, scheduling their first five preseason games against top tier professional teams. And as usual, they held their own against their MLS brethren, drawing the first three games against the Seattle Sounders, Philadelphia Union and FC Toronto. In all three games, the Lions were able to control possession for portions of the game and created numerous scoring opportunities. In truth, a win in any of these games would have been a fair result.
They then lost back to back games against FC Dallas and BK Hacken from the top Swedish professional league. However, both of these losses were understandable. The Lions received a red card less than five minutes into the FC Dallas game and had to play a man down for essentially the entire match. Incredibly, Orlando City held their own in the first half and with a little luck and better finishing could have been leading at half time. They eventually tired in the second half and lost the match. The dead legs were still evident in the BK Hacken match two days later, when they came out flat and deservedly lost their second straight match.
The second half of the preseason was against college teams, primarily from Central Florida. As expected, the Lions went undefeated, winning six straight games against Old Dominion, Rollins College, Stetson University, University of Tampa, UCF and USF. Over this stretch, Orlando City scored 16 goals and allowed only one.
After watching Orlando City hold their own against MLS competition and dominate collegiate competition, I’m excited to see how they will perform against USL PRO teams. Luckily, we’ll find out tonight as Orlando City takes on the Charlotte Eagles in North Carolina at 7:00 pm. The Lions set the bar extremely high in their debut season here in Orlando. Orlando City won the 2011 title with their tough defense, possession and direct attacks on goal. Having the same defensive personnel, strikers and what I believe to be an upgraded midfield and formation, I expect to see more of the same – Orlando City Soccer Club Lions, Kings of USL PRO for 2012!