Rafael Ramos had a promising debut season in Major League Soccer in 2015, using his eye-catching speed to announce himself to fans that may not have been too familiar with Orlando City prior to its graduation from USL. As Ramos will look to improve his one-on-one defending in 2016 and avoid the debilitating mental lapses that led to an array of disciplinary cards last season, he will have an extra source of motivation in the form of a competitive push.
While Ramos was Adrian Heath's first-choice right back last season, his primary competition came in the form of the young Tyler Turner who, while talented, lacks experience and will likely see a lot of minutes for Orlando City B in Melbourne this year.
As the preseason has kicked off this week for City, Ramos finds himself with more competition for the starting gig at fullback thanks to the addition of MLS veteran Kevin Alston, who has 148 career matches under his belt for his old club, New England Revolution. Still only 21, the young Ramos is embracing the competitive atmosphere heading into his sophomore season.
"It's good," Ramos told reporters at Sylvan Lake Park this week when asked about the competition in training. "It's good for me, I like that. It's good for the team to have [multiple] good players in the same position. It's good for [us] because it makes us work better, me and Kevin as well. So it's good for everyone."
Ramos isn't the only Lion who finds his starting spot being targeted this preseason.
After starting the 2015 campaign at left back, Brek Shea spent most of his time forward on the left wing following the injury to Kevin Molino and the slow start of Carlos Rivas. Luke Boden held it down at left back for most of the remainder of the season, with mid-season addition Corey Ashe providing some competition but not enough to win regular starting minutes.
As Orlando gears up for 2016, Shea is fully healthy and he's returned to the fullback spot on the left side, where he figures to start for Heath this season. The continued presence of Boden, however, means that OCSC has a pair of left backs that have proven themselves to be starting quality at the MLS level, so neither one can afford to take it easy for fear of being relegated to the bench.
Boden spoke to the media following training earlier this week, and his attitude shows the pressure that will be applied to Shea.
"Competition is always a good thing," Boden said. "It stops you from being comfortable. It makes you work harder in training and makes sure that when you go into the games, you know that if you don't perform, someone is going to take your place. You have to go into every game and be ready to perform, and be ready to put the work in."
Elsewhere, Molino will be the starter on the right wing, but Adrian Winter will be hungry for the type of minutes he saw last season and won't let the newly healthy Trinidadian rest on his laurels. Likewise, Cyle Larin looks nailed in as the starter at center forward -- for good reason -- but a sophomore slump could prove troublesome for that designation if Bryan Róchez picks up where he left off in '15, when he came on late to score three goals in his last five appearances.
While just about every Lion has mentioned the drive to make the postseason in 2016, their primary objective out of the gate will be to force Heath to write their names into the team sheet in ink rather than in pencil by impressing on the training field.
For now, iron will continue to sharpen iron in training, and the rest is for the gaffer to decide. All hopeful usurpers like Boden can do is stay on the grind while incumbents like Shea, Ramos and company are well aware of what they have to do to stave them off.
"I'll do my best, give 100 percent, and then it's up to the manager for the team that he picks," Boden added. "Whatever he picks, if I'm not in the team, you have to deal with that and prove to him in training that I should be in the team.
"That's pretty much a soccer player's world."