Among MLS circles, there's still a fair degree of debate regarding the value of mid-season friendlies, such as the match between Orlando City and English side West Bromwich Albion happening tonight at the Citrus Bowl.
On the one hand, I've come across some compelling arguments why the league should do away with the entire practice. On the other, teams keep scheduling them, so clearly, a number of highly paid soccer executives and business people see some value.
While I certainly don't see myself as some high-brow, soccer purist, who scowls at the very notion of playing any non-league or cup match, I'm hard-pressed to find much value in the Lions' friendly this evening. West Brom is a middling EPL team at best, with what I imagine is a minuscule following in Orlando (Or the U.S. as a whole, for that matter). So, it's immensely unlikely this will prove to provide any sort of boon to ticket sales, in either the long or the short term.
The United Kingdom does send the second most visitors to Orlando on a yearly basis, behind only Brazil, so City CEO Alex Leitão would certainly make the argument that the club is appealing to a considerable market with the match. Even so, while the financial benefits are dubious at best, it's hard to see the value in this midweek fixture for an injury-riddled, Gold Cup-weakened team in the midst of an intense playoff race in its first MLS season.
While that's all well and good, I'd really like to still get my press box buffet ticket from the team this week, so let's turn those mid-season friendly frowns upside down and take a look at which Lions have the most to gain from tonight's match!
Do people remember that, prior to the season, this was a guy we were worried would be bolting to England after a year or two in Orlando? Maybe, maybe not, but there's no question he's struggled so far this year.
We've stressed over and over on this site the importance of depth in the Major League Soccer season, so even if Okugo is not our starter at the moment, it's important that he remain fit and in form. He needs to show some leadership and consistency on what will certainly be a young team.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. It went from mildly disappointing to downright weird for the Lions' Honduran DP over the last month, with him apparently stuck in New Zealand for weeks due to passport issues.
Of course, the same trip showed us that he can apparently still play some soccer, as he scored three goals for Honduras in the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Fans hoped his goal in Orlando's previous friendly against Ponte Preta might establish Rochez as a legitimate threat in league play. It hasn't happened yet, but perhaps another friendly opportunity will be just the ticket.
It's almost incredible to believe that he and Rafael Ramos were seen as equals heading into the 2015 season. Ramos has made the MLS Team of the Week and started nearly every match at right back, whereas Estrela has yet to see the field for Orlando, and has even been left off the bench when Orlando didn't even have 18 other players to fill out the match-day roster.
No one expects Estrela to leapfrog a half dozen players into the starting lineup based on one match. At this point, he needs to show something to prove to the coaches that he even deserves a spot on an MLS roster.
'H' won't have to wait long for a shot at redemption, after being pulled from last week's 2-0 loss to FC Dallas last weekend at halftime. Of course, it will come against the likes of Darren Fletcher and James Morrison and the formidable West Brom midfield.
Even with Darwin Ceren returning from the Gold Cup this week, it could be said that Heath and Okugo may be battling for "first off the bench" duties in the central midfield for the rest of the season. A good showing against an out-of-form, preseason West Brom from his native England could earn Heath quite a few minutes in the second half of the MLS season.
At this point, Mwanga may well be the most expendable Lion on the squad. It was a gamble with the forward from day one, with the Congolese-American having never been able to replicate the success he found in his rookie season in 2010.
He's seen occasional MLS mop up duty in league play, but hasn't looked particularly comfortable. My guess would be he almost certainly won't be with the Lions in 2016, unless he can find a way to impact some games for Orlando fairly soon.
In truth, almost every Lion who sees the field tonight will have something to prove on this young team. Players like Tommy Redding and Earl Edwards Jr. are fairly entrenched in "promising prospect" status, so one friendly is unlikely to make or break their careers. Edwards could certainly make a case for being the Lions' primary backup keeper in 2016 with another good performance though, and perhaps Redding could earn his first MLS league minutes with a consistent outing at center back.
Either way, whatever your stance on the value of Orlando City's mid-season friendly against West Brom, there will certainly be some important individual performances to keep an eye on for the hardcore Lions fan.
Who do you think will impress in the friendly? Let us know in the comment section.