In many sports cities, there are positions that come under scrutiny by fans and the media. The starting quarterback, point guard, and ace pitcher are players that are under the most pressure in major professional sports towns.
In Orlando, where there are only three major professional sports teams, the most scrutinized position is arguably that of goalkeeper for Orlando City and the Orlando Pride, respectively. Joe Bendik and Florida native Ashlyn Harris have done excellent jobs in holding one of the most difficult positions in sports for the city of Orlando so far in 2016.
The Legend of Joe Bendik
It was almost Christmas when Joe Bendik was traded to Orlando City to replace fan favorite Tally Hall for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Hall brought so much joy to the supporters of Orlando City -- the ladies loved him, and his play in multiple matches kept Orlando in the playoff hunt. Hall's Orlando City campaign ended on the Citrus Bowl turf against New York City FC. The off-season questions began: Would Earl Edwards Jr. become the starter, or was it going to be this new guy who comes in and starts?
The fans and many experts believed after the few matches they had seen that Edwards Jr. would be the guy to take the reins of the Orlando City goalkeeping spot. But it was Bendik who had a strong preseason, and he was named the opening day starter and played average in his first few matches. This led to criticism on whether or not he was the right guy to be the starter.
This argument came to an end on March 18 at Yankee Stadium when Bendik was clearly the Man of the Match and made some great saves to allow Orlando City to leave New York with three points and a clean sheet. Since then, he has been the No. 1 keeper and has made an excellent penalty kick save and also took one off his face. Bendik has been as consistent as anyone can be at the position. He's fiery and isn't afraid to get in the face of anyone. Orlando City is lucky to have someone who represents everything that the club stands for. He is hard-working and has a fiery personality that has quieted fans and media alike with his play.
Hometown Hero Returns to Her Roots
Bendik's counterpart on the Orlando Pride, Ashlyn Harris, has had an interesting road to becoming the starter for the Orlando Pride.
A Satellite Beach native, she was the first four-time Parade All-American in women's high school soccer history and played for legendary coach Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina. She has had multiple ACL surgeries and spent some time in Germany before heading home to join the Washington Spirit in the inaugural season of the National Women's Soccer League. In the international setting, she's always been the backup to Hope Solo on the U.S. Women's National Team. The toughest thing about being a goalkeeper sometimes is being a backup. There is only one keeper that can start, and she happened to be sitting behind one of the best goalkeepers in women's soccer.
The Orlando Pride selected her second in the NWSL Expansion Draft, bringing the shot stopper back to her home state. The Rio Olympics are just around the corner, and ESPN analyst Julie Foudy had Harris on the bubble entering the NWSL season to make the team, but things have clearly changed after some amazing performances for the Pride. Harris has singlehandedly kept the Pride in all of its early season matches with her timely saves, and she is a role model for young women who want to be great. She talks about how it's hard work that has put her in the position that she is in, not fate or luck.
Harris is a true leader as she commands her box and forces teammates to bring their best. There was a moment at the post-game press conference after the Pride's 2-0 win against the Seattle Reign that truly shows what a great teammate and player she is. Harris was asked about being the NWSL's Save of the Week winner for two weeks, and her answer was not standard.
"It shouldn't be a highlight reel every single game," Harris said. "I point at myself too because there's breakdowns and I have to see it before it happens, and if I don't see it it's on me."
Harris is a true goalkeeper and leader of this team, although she doesn't wear the captain's arm band. She knows that the success of the Orlando Pride will fall on her shoulders and on her ability to make saves and prevent goals. The quote is what I hope all young goalkeepers take to heart, both boys and girls. Harris takes ownership of her role on the team and puts her team first above all else. In a world that is about being a superstar, Harris wants nothing of it and wants team success.
The city of Orlando is lucky to have two great goalkeepers in Bendik and Harris. Both of these keepers bring different styles to the position. The best part is that we have great seats to see them in action. Bendik is able to come up with timely saves and get the supporters riled up after a big stop. Harris is the consummate professional that I wish all young goalkeepers would look to as a role model. She is vocal and organizes her back line better than any keeper. She has the respect of her teammates and would rather make one big save than make nine saves.
Cherish this time, Orlando City and Pride fans, as many teams struggle to find key players like this. Bendik and Harris have done an excellent job handling what could be the most difficult job in Orlando sports.