Orlando City brought back one of the fan favorites from its inaugural 2011 season, Lewis Neal, during the 2015 Expansion Draft. Originally, this was viewed as a move to bring in a veteran backup midfielder who knew the ins and outs of Adrian Heath's system more than most players, and one who was already familiar with the city of Orlando.
But as the season progressed and more players ended up on the injury list, Neal was forced into action, playing in every midfield role over the course of the year.
Despite having injury problems himself, the 34-year-old ended up logging just over 1,500 minutes and appearing in 21 games (18 starts) this season.
Out of the 18 games that Neal started, he played six games as the left midfielder, six games as the right midfielder, two games as a defensive midfielder and four games as the central attacking midfielder. In each position he played in, he was never spectacular and was sometimes hard to watch, but his versatility was important in helping the team get through those tough stretches of injuries.
He finished the season with zero goals and only one assist, which came against Sporting Kansas City. Despite having four shots on goal (15 total shots), Neal could never find the back of the net in league play. He also finished the year with an 83% passing rate, which is weirdly enough in the top 10 on the entire team -- higher than either Kaká or Rafael Ramos managed. Neal averaged just about 37 passes per game, including about 2.4 long balls and 0.6 key passes per match.
Neal was also one of the very few Orlando City players to not have earned any disciplinary action. No yellow or red cards show on his stat sheet, which is something that not a lot of Orlando players with as many minutes as he has played can say. He committed only seven fouls all year.
Although this wasn't in league play, here's Neal's goal he scored in the U.S. Open Cup match against the Charleston Battery, just as proof that he can, in fact, put the ball in the back of the net.
Neal's best game may have been his performance against his old club, D.C. United, back in June. Playing in the defensive midfield, Neal helped hold one of the more potent teams at the time off the scoreboard. In true Lewis Neal fashion, he wasn't overly flashy and didn't excite anyone, but he did his best to get the job done. For our player grades, we gave him a 7.5 out of 10 for his performance.
Our own Gavin Ewbank talked about Neal's performance after the D.C. game.
Sunday's game showed us yet another reason why Heath has the confidence to play Neal in any role, in any game, and expect good results. He's a midfield player capable of slotting into any of the five spots in Orlando City's midfield, and, while he might not be the most exciting name on the field, he gets the job done.
At 34 years old, Neal is the oldest player on the Orlando City roster as of right now. With players healthy and the transfer window not even open yet, it's tough to see Neal getting too much playing time next year. I do see him still with the team for at least one more year, however, since he may end up doing what previous Lions players Ian Fuller, Anthony Pulis, and James O'Connor did and transition into coaching.
2015 Final Rating
The Mane Land staff gave Neal a composite rating of 5 out of 10. This is a pretty fair assessment of his year, given some of the below average and occasionally above average performances he had. Had he not missed some golden chances down the stretch, this grade could be higher. As much as I have been a fan of Neal's since the early 2011 days, it kind of sucks to see him not playing the way he used to. That's what happens when you get older, I suppose.