ORLANDO, Fla. – When head coach Adrian Heath drew up his battle plan for Orlando City SC’s inaugural MLS season, it didn’t look much like the one that claimed a well-earned victory on the road Sunday against the Portland Timbers.
But the result of that plan has now presented him with the best kind of selection problem.
City flummoxed the Timbers with rookie Cyle Larin leading the attack ahead of a new-look midfield trio of Amobi Okugo, Cristian Higuita and Darwin Cerén, with marquee Designated Player Kaká shifted out wide. And it was the Salvadoran international Cerén, surprisingly, pulling many of the strings.
Now, Heath has to decide whether to stick with that midfield trio for Saturday’s away match against Columbus Crew SC (7:30 pm ET, MLS Live).
“These are the big decisions I get paid to make,” Heath told reporters at a recent training session. “Very often, what goes on here at training Monday to Friday dictates what works for us on game day, but we certainly have some options now. Our midfield three did really well on Sunday considering we only sprung the idea on them on Tuesday. They all knew their roles and responsibilities, and they were an important part of us getting the three points.”
Cerén, who was recruited from Juventud Independiente in El Salvador’s Primera Division last year and captains the El Salvador national team, was the vital holding midfielder in Orlando’s final USL season last year. He was initially expected to struggle for minutes behind the many new faces in Orlando’s MLS incarnation.
Instead, Cerén has started four of OCSC's last five games (he was on international duty for their trip to Montreal), and Heath was quick to pay tribute to the 25-year-old from the town of Quezaltepeque, just north of the capital, San Salvador.
“I am really pleased for Darwin; he is a great kid,” Heath said. “He comes in every day and gives it everything he’s got. He is a consummate pro, and he can be a big part of our success going forward.”
Cerén insisted the fierce competition for midfield spots was the key to City’s dynamic play from box to box, and that he is thriving under the added responsibility.
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“We’re seeing an intensity in training that is reflected in the games as well,” he said via an interpreter. “The coaches ask a lot out of every player, and we are pushing each other to get faster and better and to work harder all the time. It helps us as a group, and we are seeing the results on the field in a good way.
“We also have differences among the players in that Amobi is more destructive, Cristian does the defensive work well and likes to distribute the ball early, and we have other players that are playing at a high level, too.”
The big surprise for Orlando fans was seeing Cerén in more advanced positions, and he confirmed he was relishing the opportunity to be more creative.
“That is the position I like to play most,” he said. “I can go forward more and get closer to the goal and create more chances. That actually suits my game. I especially like the way we are defending and pushing forward with this system. I am sure it will create more chances and that definitely works for me.”