Fresh off a stint in Jamaica with the U.S. U-20s, center back Conor Donovan earned the start for Orlando City SC in a friendly against Swedish side BK Häcken on Friday. It was the third straight start for the youngster.
Many felt Donovan was a steal for Orlando as the 22nd pick in last month's MLS SuperDraft, and he did quite a bit to prove them right on Friday.
Donovan started in the center next to trialist Sean St. Ledger, as presumptive starter Aurelien Collin did not play due to a minor knock picked up in training. Both men played an intense 70 minutes, and were largely solid against the in-season Allsvenskan club. The only goal the Lions allowed came against the run of play on a spectacular 10th minute free kick from 22 yards.
"I thought it was very good intensity and a high speed match," Donovan said. "There were even a few chippy tackles that made it seem like a regular season game. There's no such thing as an easy game."
In particular, both St. Ledger and Donovan stood out for just how vocal they were in organizing the players in front of them. The veteran St. Ledger took control at times, but 19-year-old Donovan may have been the second loudest man on the pitch in the first half.
"That comes with the job," said Donovan, referencing his role at center back. "Coach has been stressing it to both of us. Sean [St. Ledger] has been really good with the communication, and I've been learning from him a bit and upping mine as well."
The battle for the starting center back spot next to Collin is shaping up to be intense, as Orlando has amassed an impressive collection of veteran experience and raw talent. For the moment, Donovan seems to have climbed ahead of Tommy Redding on the depth chart, and will compete with veterans Seb Hines and (possibly) St. Ledger for the opening day start.
We asked Donovan if he thought his time with the U-20s had benefited his form and fitness now that he's back with Orlando.
"I still think I have more to prove," the defender responded. "It's a different level, it's a different type of game. But [the U-20 camp] definitely gave me a good baseline."
Donovan was one of the brightest spots for Orlando City in the friendly, but there were also impressive performances from others, including Kaká and Kevin Molino. While the match was a good overall team performance, Conor's training focus going forward was predictable.
"I think it's just getting to know each other," Donovan said. "Just getting the chemistry down. You saw some really good spells from the midfielders. That's the main thing. Getting to know each other and continuing to get in shape and stay healthy."