There were plenty of reasons why Orlando City's friendly against West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday night was rather poorly timed.
In the heat of an MLS Cup playoff race and down several players due to injury and international duty, the Lions could've used a little R&R instead of a mid-week runout against a tough EPL side. But the schedule is the schedule, and Adrian Heath was able to cobble together a squad that earned one of Orlando's most complete wins of the season.
While the 3-1 victory over West Brom may not count for anything in the standings, there are positives to take away from the victory and from all of Orlando City's non-MLS matches.
It's important to remember that most soccer clubs across the globe participate in tournaments and other competitions during their season. While MLS, by virtue of its summer schedule, might play more international friendlies against European clubs than any other league, these games don't place unreasonable expectations on the sides involved.
And to truly understand their benefit, you need only to look across the pond.
Coming into their 2014-15 Premier League campaign, North London club Tottenham Hotspur had a pretty good idea of where their goals were going to come from. With towering Togolese forward Emmanuel Adebayor leading the attack, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen would help facilitate the club's offense from the midfield. Any goals off the bench would be supplied by transfer flop Roberto Soldado or club academy product Harry Kane, who had already been loaned four times before his 21st birthday.
Early in the season, Spurs took part in the group stages of the Europa League and the Capital One Cup, a knockout tournament open to teams from the top four leagues in England. In order to keep their starters fit for Premier League duty, Tottenham gave their bench players plenty of opportunities to perform during these non-league competitions. And it was here that Harry Kane well and truly blew up.
The English striker scored his first eight goals of the season in Europa League and Capital One Cup matches, taking advantage of the playing time given to him during these mid-week games. Once he became Spurs' everyday starting forward, Kane never looked back and finished the season with 31 goals across all competitions. By the end of the year, he had even received his first cap with the national team, scoring approximately 80 seconds into his debut.
All this is not to say that Carlos Rivas is Harry Kane, but rather that uncanny similarities exist between both players' seasons.
The Colombian international has used Orlando City's non-league games to showcase his ability as a dynamic scoring threat, deadly off set pieces and equally threatening from the run of play. Getting the start in both of Orlando's U.S. Open Cup matches and Wednesday's friendly against West Brom, Rivas has chipped in five goals for the Lions in these non-league contests and earned more attention from the coaching staff during the games that matter.
Consider that after playing out of position as Orlando City's starting striker to begin the season, Rivas would see more than 45 minutes only once before getting the start against the Charleston Battery in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. After going a full 90 minutes and converting three penalty kicks against the Battery, he would be a first-half sub in Orlando City's next home match against Colorado, when he put in his best performance as a Lion.
After the 2-0 win over the Rapids, Kaká was quick to praise the performance of his young teammate.
"He played very good he made all the right decisions to put himself in the chance to score," Kaká said of Rivas after the game. "He is improving at the end when it matters."
Since his hat trick in Charleston, Rivas has averaged 73 minute per game for Orlando City across all competitions. Wednesday night's friendly proved to be yet another example of Rivas' improved play, as he banged home a free kick to give Orlando City the lead against West Brom. Rivas will have more competition for playing time in the midfield when Brek Shea returns from injury, but he hasn't wasted any opportunities to show off his improved form to the coaching staff.
This is the real benefit of non-league games for Orlando City, as the club provides younger players with a chance to prove themselves on a big stage and gives bench players a shot to break into the first team. What's even more encouraging for Orlando City fans is that the club is unbeaten in U.S. Open Cup matches and international friendlies this season, demonstrating the talent of the players within their ranks.
It's a testament to the front office -- which was tasked with essentially building a club from scratch this off-season -- that the Lions have been able to remain competitive when faced with injuries and a thinned-out roster this season. These breaks from the MLS schedule have not served as a needless distraction for an Orlando City team looking to compete for a playoff spot, but have provided the club with a place to experiment with the roster and identify players with the potential to succeed down the road.
Wednesday night's win over the Baggies was a perfect example of how the club is utilizing these matches, as players such as Estrela, Conor Donovan and Tommy Redding all saw minutes, despite not appearing in an MLS game this season. And players like Amobi Okugo and Donovan Ricketts were given a chance to show they deserve another shot at the playing time they received earlier in the season.
While Carlos Rivas may be the latest example of an Orlando City player who's used these matches to catapult himself into the first team, he surely won't be the last. Orlando has done well to see U.S. Open Cup matches and international friendlies for what they are: not a needless distraction from the present, but a chance to start building something for the future.