When Orlando City selected Lewis Neal from D.C. United with its fifth pick in the 2014 MLS Expansion Draft back in December, few saw the veteran midfielder playing a large role in the Lions' inaugural season.
However, with some hard work and injuries to guys above him on the depth chart during the preseason, Neal earned a place in the starting lineup for the Lions' season-opener against New York City FC and was in the starting lineup again the following week against the Houston Dynamo, before injuries sidelined him for nearly two months.
Neal returned as a sub against the Columbus Crew two weeks ago, and started in Chicago on the left wing in place of Brek Shea, who was on international leave. Sunday against D.C., Orlando Head Coach Adrian Heath made a surprising lineup change when he started Neal --rather than Amobi Okugo -- in the defensive midfield for Darwin Ceren, who was out on international duty. Neal quieted most of the doubters by turning in a Man-of-the-Match-type performance, while playing arguably his best game of the season for Orlando City.
His efforts contributed to the Lions' 1-0 win over D.C., the team that Neal broke into MLS with in 2012, after spending the 2011 season with the Lions in USL.
"He was fantastic this evening." Heath said after the game on Sunday. "For a guy who's only had five, six weeks out. For him to have had a week's training, to play like that is outstanding. He's a really good footballer. He understands the game as much as anyone in this football club. You could play him anywhere on the field and he gets it. He knows what's expected of him and he's technically very, very good. He's a player's player. Everyone in this football club likes playing with him. He's just a top player."
He was very involved in the early going alongside Cristian Higuita, and continued to be involved as the game wore on. Neal's a guy that can handle the ball well and control possession, and he showed that by hitting a high percentage of his passes.
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.
Neal might not win any awards for his play this season, but he's playing an important role for Orlando City in 2015.
"I didn't know [a start in the defensive midfield] was coming, but it was welcome on my side," Neal said on Sunday. "It was just nice to be out there, I'm happy to be on the field, wherever that might be."
Neal's experience might come in handy again, starting tonight, when the Lions travel to South Carolina to open up their 2015 U.S. Open Cup campaign against the Charleston Battery. Neal, you might remember, scored the game-winning goal for D.C. in 2013 to help United to the Open Cup crown that year.