It’s hard to say that a win means more to some players than others, but Sunday’s win against D.C. United certainly did for Lewis Neal. After all, it’s impossible not to play with an extra spark when facing your former team.
It was just his second start since returning to the lineup and Neal was slotted in the defensive midfield for the first time in over a year – a tall order for a player still regaining his fitness and learning his role in Adrian Heath’s system.
Neal had previously featured at left midfield this season for the Lions. He played defensive midfield when he was with D.C., but putting him in that spot – especially against the best team in MLS – was a bold move by Coach Heath.
“I have played it before but I’ve not played it for a while, so just getting used to getting into a rhythm of being able to open out and turn out and switch the point of attack at times takes a little bit of getting used to,” said Neal.
He played alongside Cristian Higuita in a spot usually occupied by Darwin Cerén.
Cerén had often drawn praise from his coach for being the best player on the pitch, but with Cerén being away on international duty, Neal was called in to fill the void.
Neal did more than just fill the void though; he answered the call better than anyone could’ve hoped.
“Quite well? Let’s get that one right... He didn’t play quite well – he was fantastic this evening,” Adrian Heath said after the game as he interrupted a reporter’s question. He couldn’t say enough in praise of Neal.
Neal was a bit more reserved as he reflected on his own performance.
“I was fairly pleased. I felt it went pretty well considering it was my first game in the center for a while.”
His teammates, though, like their coach, were a bit more enthusiastic with their thoughts on the former D.C. man’s performance.
“In the showers we were saying Lewis got man of the match so we had a bit of a laugh with him. It’s fantastic,” said his teammate and best friend Luke Boden.
Neal’s ability to step in for one of the most prominent fixtures of Orlando City’s starting XI is just another indication of the roster depth with which Heath is armed as he continues tackling a summer filled with international call-ups.