This week I played hooky from my weekday duties and headed to the Orlando City training facilities to watch our reserve squad take on Minnesota United FC. It was a beautiful day to watch soccer, and despite falling 3-2 in the end, there were a lot of positives on the field for Orlando City.
Part of the reason for Minnesota's success came with the late game inclusion of former Orlando City and club legend Jamie Watson. In his three years in the City Beautiful, Watson become a fan favorite due to his ability to dominate the wings with his speed and talent.
His hustle and attitude certainly won the supporters over too. Like he did so many times in Orlando, Watson's insertion in the second half changed the nature of the game and shifted the momentum firmly in favor of the visitors.
After watching Watson score to pull Minnesota level and draw the foul setting up the winning goal from the spot, I couldn't help but wonder why he wasn't still playing in purple? It's the question most of us asked when we heard he was leaving Orlando. Watching him against the Orlando reserves he seemed able to compete at an MLS level, albeit MLS reserves.
For long time supporters of the club, the nine former USL players have a special place in our hearts. The club and the supporters have both embraced the notion we are somehow a touch above fellow MLS inaugural club New York City FC and future clubs in Atlanta and Miami. We followed the "built not bought" mentality, a model followed incidentally by Minnesota United FC as well. Part of this philosophy was to bring MLS quality players in during our time in USL.
Seeing the likes of Kevin Molino, Darwin Cerén, and Luke Boden start and play well for the Lions has been a special aspect of this early season. Watching the development of youngsters like Tyler Turner, Harrison Heath, and Tommy Redding is a preoccupation of the Orlando support as well. The success of these long time Lions seems to reiterate the historic success of the club, while at the same time providing a talisman pointing to our future.
For a young club, building club legends with a long tenure is critical for the long term development of the club's culture, as well as its on field success.
The reserve match this past Tuesday showed that a number of long term Lions are still fighting hard for their shot at the first team. Boden played well, Heath had two assists, along with a number of impressive runs at the defense, while former Benfica youngster and second-year Lion Estrela looked active on the ball.
With a long season still ahead of us, our depth will become a critical question as we move later into the summer. Many of the Orlando City players who played key roles in the successful USL teams will be called on to do the same in MLS.
As hard as the tenured players in purple were playing in this reserve match for a spot in the next starting 11 for Orlando, the player who looked like he could help the club this weekend against the Portland Timbers was former Lion Jamie Watson.
While a former Lion was showing the club what could have been, it was the call up of four academy players that might be the most important story line in the long term. Alan Sexius, David Loera, Raul Aguilera, and David Norris all made their first appearance as second-half subs for the reserve match.
Maybe the next Orlando City legend and supporter favorite was on the field Tuesday? Only time will tell.