When Orlando City's Lewis Neal missed a point blank shot early in Saturday's contest against Sporting Kansas City my friend shouted across the row, "Lewis Neal couldn't hit the broadside of a barn, with a barn!"
Similar frustrations with Neal's game have seemingly lingered over the past few months. Each week's lineup is met with general shock that Neal's kept his starting spot in the midfield.
Contrasting the popular opinion of Neal's efforts this season are Head Coach Adrian Heath's faith in the player. During Saturday's post-game press conference, Heath was quick to praise the midfielder, "I must mention Lewis Neal, I thought he was excellent tonight in that role."
It's safe to say that Heath knows more about soccer than all of my friends combined, despite our years of playing, and Football Manager, and FIFA video game triumphs. Still, there seems to be a massive disconnect with the way we perceive Neal's game and the way the team does.
Neal came to Orlando City as the ninth pick in the MLS Expansion Draft. More accurately, Neal came back to Orlando with this pick, as he spent the 2011 USL season with the Lions before heading to DC United. He became both a beloved figure and the answer to a trivia question for long-time Orlando City supporters when he scored the club's first goal on Feb. 19, 2011, in a friendly against the Philadelphia Union.
While fans were excited to see Neal back in Orlando, his role was expected to be one of a reserve with a positive locker room influence and strong work ethic. Injuries and lackluster performances from others in the midfield corps have forced Heath's hand to an extent.
Still, Neal was in the opening day lineup when the majority of the team was available, and he has started 14 of the 17 games he has played in this season. Most of the games he missed were due to injury, so it's safe to assume he has generally been selected when available this season. In his 17 games, he has managed one assist and only four shots on target. Maybe a better indicator of his mature play is his five fouls, in contrast to his midfield running mates Christian Higuita, who leads the team with 60 fouls and Darwin Ceren, who has committed 43 fouls. For a team that is second in the league with 400 fouls, this is a huge stat.
This last stat also provides a glimpse of the stabilizing force Neal has in the midfield. In terms of talent, Higuita and Ceren are young players who have both had breakout years so far. Their importance to Orlando City is undebatable. With the exception of a few veterans, the better part of Orlando City's roster is either very young or brand new to MLS; most of them are both.
A player like Neal helps the players around him play better. He makes the easy passes (83% this season) and provides stability. He's not going to do the things that bring the crowd to their feet, but he's going to play his role and do the little things that help a team win collectively. While he's on the field, he's also helping a young team -- full of players still finding themselves -- to grow, with professionalism and hard work.