Orlando City finished its 10-day Jacksonville preseason camp Saturday. These Lions are different from years past. Not since 2015 have there been so many youngsters or new faces, but never have there been so many established MLS veterans, either. How the new mesh with the old and how the young ones learn from their veteran teammates will determine Orlando City’s success in 2018.
Pierre Da Silva beamed as he answered questions about Josué Colmán. But not entirely out of praise for his new teammate.
“Actually, talking about players I played with in the past, I played against him in Mexico in the U-17s,” Da Silva said with a smile. “We played Paraguay, beat them 2-1.
“Having him as a teammate is awesome. He’s a great player. I’m lucky to play by his side.”
Da Silva and Colmán are the two youngest players on the team, and they’ll turn 20 within three days of each other in July. New Lions Cam Lindley and Chris Mueller will be just 20 and 21, respectively, come Opening Day.
“I can’t remember a time where I was as happy with [players out of] college,” Jason Kreis said of Lindley and Mueller. “Both of them look like they should be able to contribute this year.”
Together, the four of them comprise City’s young, exciting core looking to make a mark in 2018. Da Silva is coming off a stellar season in the USL, where he was named the top prospect under 20. As a senior at Wisconsin, Mueller led all Division 1 with 20 assists and was Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and Lindley put up seven goals and 20 assists in 43 games at North Carolina and never missed a start.
Then, of course, is Colmán.
“I do believe that he will grow into a very, very natural and gifted No. 10 in this league,” Kreis said of his young Designated Player.
There’s plenty of depth at midfield, so the youngsters won’t be forced into roles they can’t handle this year. And they’re surrounded by veterans they can learn from.
“It’s just a great sense of team culture,” Mueller said.
For a moment, Jonathan Spector found himself stuck inside an airplane simulator.
“We couldn’t get out because it’s a hydraulic-based system,” Spector said of his flight. “They managed to get it all fixed and troubleshot and we were good to go again.”
Spector is one of six players, along with Joe Bendik, Will Johnson, Sacha Kljestan, Yoshimar Yotún and Dom Dwyer, designated by the coaching staff at the team’s core leaders. The six of them went on a visit to Naval Air Station Jacksonville to speak face to face with servicemen and women about how and what it means to be a leader.
“The idea is just to continue to give them ideas on how to lead better,” Jason Kreis said. “How to improve in that leadership department.”
They had an engaging conversation and took back their lessons and simulator stories back to the team. The trip to NASJ was an extra shot in the arm for the group tasked with spearheading change in the locker room.
And with such a new team this year – 12 new faces and six without any MLS experience – it’s paramount that the leaders lead, and the younger ones learn.
All six of them have spoken publicly about their roles in shaping the younger players’ professional habits, and Kljestan and Yotún both said they don’t just see it as their responsibility, but something they relish.
“As a collective group, we need to buy into it and we need to change because this is a big year for us,” Bendik said. “We’ve added a lot of pieces and these are guys that are going to help us win in the future.”
Checkpoints & Culture Change
On Saturday, Orlando City passed its first checkpoint of 2018: its first preseason training scrimmage.
The Lions faced the Dolphins of Jacksonville University in their training kits. No numbers, no refs and no substitution limits offered Jason Kreis a chance to evaluate his team against another for the first time.
“Really, really pleased with the tempo and the movement of the ball. Pleased with the work rate that the players put in,” he said. “Pleased that we laid out objectives for the players in this game and they reached them.”
Kreis said the same about the entire stay in Jacksonville. He was pleased with the players’ fitness and their commitment, and the coaching staff emphasized through their daily schedules the importance of the players getting to know one another.
“A big focus for us right away when we’re in Jacksonville, maybe even arguably more so than the soccer,” Kreis said before the trip, “will be to get these players to understand who each other are and to gel and be willing to sacrifice for each other.”
Because once the players reach that level where they see themselves as one family, they can begin to establish a culture of accountability, and ultimately, winning.
“We want to be a club that wins things and that’s the culture that we need to build,” said Jonathan Spector. “The New England Patriots are the perfect example. We may be far away from building that, but that’s the culture that everybody aspires to have.”
A lot of the players, particularly the young ones, have spoken with an air of unbridled ambition about 2018. The more veteran players see how long the road ahead is and they understand the importance of setting attainable goals in the short and long terms.
It appears as though those lessons are being passed on and received.
“Our first goal is to go to playoffs,” said Mohamed El-Munir, who joined the team on Friday. “We’re going to put another goal when we pass to the playoff.”
But there are 27 days until the March 3 opener against D.C. United – plenty of time to iron out the details.
“We feel very, very good about the group we’ve put together,” Kreis said. “I think one of the biggest challenges will be the team-building side of things, the chemistry side of things. But so far, so good. But still a lot of time in front of us.”