For seven Orlando City SC players, last night's 1-1 preseason draw against D.C. United marked the first step of their dream to make the successful jump to Major League Soccer from USL PRO.
Those players -- Luke Boden, Harrison Heath, Estrela, Kevin Molino, Rafael Ramos, Tommy Redding, and Tyler Turner (Darwin Ceren didn't play) -- all saw 45 minutes of work against good MLS competition. Boden, Estrela, Molino and Ramos all started and played their minutes against the bulk of D.C. United's best lineup.
All of the USL PRO veterans acquitted themselves rather well, although none were spectacular. In the parlance of Led Zeppelin, all had Good Times, Bad Times.
But before we get into the efforts of last year's returning Lions, it's important to note the importance of the moment. Those "USL guys" played MLS soccer last night and played the defending regular season Eastern Conference champions to a draw.
"It's brilliant to have been here for four years now -- and this will be my fifth year -- to come up with the club and see how the club's grown has been fantastic," Boden said after the game.
Boden worked the left side of the Orlando City back line, with his buddy Lewis Neal playing ahead of him on the left wing. He saw a lot of the ball early, with Unite attacking up his side for a good deal of the first 45 minutes. He acquitted himself mostly well, particularly after the opening 15 or 20 minutes, when the entire team seemed like a group that had only been together for a week. (It had.)
Although he gave the ball away a few times, Boden was also able to get forward and make some crosses into the box, though no one could get on the end of them. Importantly, he didn't look overmatched or under paced for the MLS game. He was, however, a bit critical of his own work.
"I was sloppy in possession I thought," said the left back. "For me, personally, that's my first game in five months, since the season ended. So, I sort of expected to be a little bit rusty, but me personally, I'm disappointed in tonight. I think I gave the ball away too much."
Ramos was caught out of position on the Chris Pontius goal. With United breaking up Orlando's right side, Gustavo was forced to go out to the right to try to cut off Taylor Kemp. Ramos tried to recover, putting two City defenders outside on the right. That opened space in the box for Pontius, who rose and got on the end of Kemp's outstanding cross, nodding it home into the side netting on the far right of Donovan Ricketts' goal.
There was nothing the keeper could do.
But Ramos also played a very dynamic game, and was a menace up the right side most of the first half. His play was encouraging overall and it looks like he'll have quite a battle with Turner for that spot.
Turner played the second half and made a critical mistake early, overplaying to the outside and allowing United to get inside with a pass to Jairo Arrieta, who put his shot right at Lions goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. But, like Ramos, Turner's marauding up the right side gave United trouble and the U.S. U-20 international even drew the free kick that resulted in Carlos Rivas' tying goal.
Redding's 45 minutes at center back were eventful, as the game became more open in the second half. Playing alongside rookie Conor Donovan, Orlando City's center backs were tested repeatedly, with mixed results. They did mostly fine in the air, but did allow a few through balls that resulted in good chances for United.
As for the midfielders, Molino had a hard time getting started, but as the first half wore on, he found himself more and more on the ball in space, and the offense flowed much better. Estrela was a mixed bag, struggling mightily in the early going, but getting a bit better as the first half wore on. He gave the ball away too often and his passing wasn't crisp, so it will be interesting to see if that was rust or competition level.
Heath had a similar outing to Estrela but was a bit better positionally, albeit against more of United's reserves. Having taken an earlier free kick, he lined up with Rivas on the right side for the play that led to the goal, presenting some confusion for United's defense.
Head Coach Adrian Heath rated his "USL guys" about the same as the rest of the team -- some good and some bad.
"One thing about the USL guys is it's going to be a step up for them," he said. "It's going to be a different size -- not only physically, but mentally and power-wise. They're going to have to get used to that. But they can all play. They're all young. They have time."
Despite being critical of his own play, Boden put the first preseason game in perspective.
"This is the first week in and I've got plenty of weeks to concentrate on my game and things like that, and collectively as a team, and I'm sure we'll do that. And I'm sure we'll be flying next game."