Kevin Molino was Orlando City's best player in 2014, and many had him pegged for a breakout campaign on the national stage in the Lions' first season in Major League Soccer.
Our own Austin David wrote yesterday that he hasn't exactly taken the league by storm so far, but it's certainly too early to have formed any sort of final verdict on his 2015 campaign. I wanted to expand on Austin's thoughts a bit, as a few things have caught my eye through the first three matches.
The Trinidadian National went the full 90 in all three, and is clearly seen by the coaching staff as an essential cog in the attacking midfield. Even with a number of experienced MLS midfielders (Eric Avila, Tony Cascio) and young attacking talent available on the bench, Molino has yet to leave the pitch.
We've heard since nearly their first practice together about the chemistry between Kaká and Molino, and they haven't disappointed so far. Watch this nifty double-dummyTM the two of them pulled off against New York City FC in Charleston:
First off, yes, I just trademarked "double-dummy." Second, that's a nice play, and it led to a great scoring chance for Rafael Ramos. Need more evidence of awesomeness? Here's Molino again, setting up Kaká for a rocket against New York in the MLS opener:
Notice how Kaká begins his run the moment he passes the ball to Molino? The Brazilian makes the initial pass with the intention of getting the ball back in a shooting position, and Molino does not let him down. That's probably a goal in a few weeks, once Kaká has shaken off the off-season shooting rust.
So what' s the problem?
Watching the Vancouver match, Molino struggled for most of the game. It struck me that the Whitecaps may have watched some tape and decided that the best way to contain Molino was to be physical with him. Exhibit A:
It's another moment of absolute brilliance from Kaká and Molino, right up until the finish. Molino goes down on contact with the Caps' defender and the ball trickles harmlessly out of bounds. The midfielder and Coach Heath were incensed at the no-call, but I've got bad news: that's going to be the call nine times out of 10 in MLS.
Vancouver continued to play physically with the Trinidadian all match, and it seemed to throw him off his game.
Remember his simulation yellow card from the opener against NYCFC? Definitely a borderline call, but regardless, he struggles to fight through the initial body contact and then goes down easily at the slightest hint of a trip. Whether or not you thought it was a dive, this is what teams are looking at when they pull up the tape on Molino:
Can you really blame them for playing him this way, though? How do you handle someone with more skill than you? Rough them up. That's a standard rule in most sports, and there's no reason for it to be different in MLS.
Molino's passing and vision have been impressive, but MLS isn't exactly "Joga Bonito." I'd bet that our future opponents will have seen this same tape, seen the simulation yellow, and will have the same game plan in place to stifle the Trinidad & Tobago international.
The soft-spoken winger will be with the Trinidad and Tobago national team to take on Panama this weekend (Friday night), and the Lions will surely miss him against the Montreal Impact on Saturday. Still, Molino would be wise to increase the physicality in his game if he hopes to reach his All-Star caliber ceiling in Major League Soccer.