ORLANDO - On February 19, 2011, Orlando City Soccer Club stepped on the field for the first time taking on Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union at the Orlando Citrus Bowl. In the 19th minute of that game Englishman Lewis Neal scored the first goal in club history. Four years later Neal has returned to help the club usher in a new era.
A native of Leicester, England, Neal is well-known to the Stoke influenced brass of Orlando City. The 33-year-old came up through the Stoke City academy before spending five years with the first team. After six years of playing with lower division teams, Orlando City president and, at the time, Stoke City F.C. board member Phil Rawlins brought the midfielder across the Atlantic to Orlando.
As someone who spent much of his youth with Stoke City, Neal felt comfortable with his surroundings upon his arrival in 2011. “Phil’s been a director at Stoke since I was 16 or 17 years old” Neal says, “so I’ve known him for a long, long time.” In addition to Rawlins, Neal says he also felt at home with head coach Adrian Heath who he calls a “Stoke guy” and the fact that his agent, Gary Mellor, is a Stoke native.
After a stellar 2011 season which brought a USL PRO Season Title and League Championship, Neal was swooped up by D.C. United where he made 53 appearances in three seasons. A key part of the United squad that had the best regular season in the Eastern Conference in 2014, the club left him unprotected in the expansion draft allowing Orlando City to select him with their fifth pick.
While much has changed around Orlando since Neal departed, he feels comfort being around people he knows well. “When I went there I knew nobody at D.C. whereas here I know a lot of the staff.” Neal also cites reconnecting with Luke Boden, Kevin Molino, and Harrison Heath who remain from his first stint with the club. “It certainly makes the settling-in period a little bit easier.”
A squad noted for its youth, Neal will bring needed MLS experience. Of the 29 players currently on the Lions’ roster, the average age is 24 and only 10 have MLS experience. “That’s pretty obvious why I came back here,” Neal notes but he expects “to be an older, more experienced guy and to help out the younger guys at times.”
As for where Neal will play when the season comes, he’s not too concerned. “I think he (Adrian Heath) knows that I can play all across the midfield.” While he says it doesn’t bother him where Heath decides to play him, he also wants to be clear that he’s “not here for a holiday” but wants to “genuinely compete for a spot.”
As the initial goal scorer in Orlando City’s inaugural season, Lewis Neal has a special place in the history of the Club. After four years away, the midfielder has returned to help guide in a new era in Orlando. The MLS veteran will bring experience and versatility to the squad. It’s an exciting homecoming for a former – and future – fan favorite.