Simon Veness is a beat writer covering Orlando City SC for MLSsoccer.com. You can view all of his stories written for MLSsoccer.com here.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Wayne Gretzky may be "The Great One" in Canada, but the hockey star whose footsteps Cyle Larin was most likely to follow was P.K. Subban.
Like Subban, Larin, a striker for Orlando City SC, grew up in a Toronto suburb but with Jamaican roots. Like Subban, the University of Connecticut prospect is an imposing physical specimen. And like the Montreal Canadiens defenseman, Larin played his first competitive sport on skates and not in cleats. But from there, their stories diverge as the 19-year-old rookie was drawn firmly into his father’s sport and never looked back.
“I always played with my dad and there was always a ball around,” Larin admitted. “I played hockey before I started competitively in soccer, but I never played hockey at a high enough level to see what I could do. Ultimately, it was always in the back of my mind when I was younger to play pro soccer. I trained as hard as I could and I was watching players like Kaká, so that was always my thinking really.”
Larin came up through the ranks fast, first with the Sigma FC soccer academy in Mississauga, Ontario, including training spells with the likes of Werder Bremen in Germany and Club Brugge in Belgium, and then with UConn, where he burst on to the scene with 14 goals in 23 appearances as a freshman.
“It was a very professional set-up at UConn,” he explained. “Not quite at the same level as MLS, but very good facilities and good people. I felt very comfortable there.”
Larin followed up with another nine goals in 16 appearances as a sophomore and MLS persuaded him to sign a Generation adidas contract before he was drafted with the No. 1 pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft. Now, Larin will be the prime forward option for Orlando as they prepare for Sunday’s trip to Portland (5 pm ET, ESPN2) given that Pedro Ribeiro has been ruled out for at least two months with the torn hamstring that sidelined him early during Orlando's 1-0 home defeat by D.C. United last Friday.
It shouldn’t have been this way, though, as the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Larin was initially penciled in for game time with City’s USL affiliate Louisville City FC. With Orlando City already boasting the likes of Designated Player Bryan Rochez, Northern Ireland international Martin Paterson and Colombian Carlos Rivas as well as Ribeiro, Larin was fairly low in the team’s attacking pecking order.
Injuries have claimed each of Paterson, Rivas and now Ribeiro to different degrees, however, and Larin is the de facto leader of the front line days before his 20th birthday. He even showed enough in 68 minutes against D.C. United for head coach Adrian Heath to believe the Canadian’s future is now.
“He definitely has an opportunity,” Heath confirmed. “It is what I say to all the younger players – if you bring your A-game to training every single morning, you will get a chance. Cyle is getting to grips with the huge transition from college football and just has to look at Kaká and Aurelien Collin for the way Major League players train. If he follows that example, he has the chance of a really good career.”
Larin is certainly not over-awed by his MLS experiences to date, getting on the end of several promising chances against United, even if he couldn’t quite get one past the outstanding Bill Hamid, and having enough of a physical presence to evoke comparisons with US international and Toronto FC striker Jozy Altidore.
“After Friday, I know I can go in the game and play with these guys,” he insisted. “That was very good for me, to know I can get chances to score. Looking back, there are a few things I could have done better, and it is kind of hard to look and see you could have scored on a couple of chances, but it was a good learning experience and hopefully I can get a goal next time.
“And it is a good thing to hear the comparisons with Jozy. I can look at him and learn from him, too.”
Larin has already made five appearances for his country and scored his first goal last week against Puerto Rico, and he is equally comfortable with the idea of being the focus of Canada’s attacking game in future.
“I like playing in front of big crowds,” he insisted. “It excites me a lot. I’m not really someone who gets really nervous about what other people expect of me. It just motivates me to be better every day.”
And he could certainly go on to be another Canadian version of P.K Subban – only on grass.