Long-time Orlando City SC supporters were excited to welcome back a club favorite with the ninth pick in the recent MLS Expansion Draft. The club used the pick to bring midfielder Lewis Neal back to Orlando after three seasons with D.C. United. Neal played a critical part in Orlando City's inaugural 2011 campaign and eventual USL Pro Championship.
It was Neal's conversion of a penalty in the 115th minute of the championship final at the Orlando Citrus Bowl that brought the club level again and forced the game into the penalty kick shoot-out, where the Lions would eventually prevail. Neal played in 21 of the 24 regular season contests that year, finding the net on four occasions. After the successful season, Neal had an unsuccessful trial with Real Salt Lake before being offered a contract with D.C. United.
Before Neal moved his game stateside, he played for more than a decade in England, coming out of the Stoke City youth system. He appeared 70 times for Stoke City, scoring twice. While he bounced around the lower leagues in England, he most notably appeared 65 times for Preston North End.
Much as Neal's late game heroic's won him a place in Orlando City hearts forever, D.C. United fans share a similar affection for him and his late game dramatic goals. During his first MLS season, Neal scored a dynamic goal in the 91st minute to take D.C. to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Here's the goal:
At the age of 33, Neal's best playing years may be behind him, but his connections with the club and his professionalism certainly make him a natural fit for a young club. With 15 years of playing experience, including three seasons in MLS, Neal brings intangibles to the club that make him worth picking him up in the Expansion Draft.
With Brek Shea, Darwin Cerén, Kevin Molino, and Kaká all potentially lining up in the midfield, Neal is in an excellent position to play a similar role he did for D.C. United. Last season, he appeared 26 times, with only seven of those as a starter. Neal can create chances when the team needs a spark or play a stabilizing role when the team needs to finish off a game.
To quote an Orlando Sentinel article during Neal's first tenure at Orlando City, former defender Jack Traynor claimed, "He's like the dad. He's the most mature guy in the group." Just like the young USL-Pro Champions of 2011, Neal will find plenty of young Lions needing his dad-like leadership on and off the field.
Fun Fact: Lewis Neal scored Orlando City's first ever goal in a friendly vs. Philadelphia Union at the Orlando Citrus Bowl.