Cyle Larin knew he would face increased attention from opposition defenses in 2016.
After all, the Canadian striker lit up the league as a rookie in 2015, smashing home an MLS rookie record 17 goals in his first professional campaign. That's a great way to announce yourself to the league, but it's also a great way to put a target on your back – defenders know that Larin is the primary threat at goal, and they treat him as such.
"There's more guys on me. Anytime I get the ball there's someone behind me, someone beside me and they're hitting me harder," Larin said following a training session this week. "I just have to be quicker than them and just make sure I'm thinking faster and make sure I'm scoring."
The focus on Larin was evident from the start of the season on March 6, when Larin faced physical defending for 90-plus minutes against Real Salt Lake, still managing a goal and a game-tying assist in the process. Despite now being a focal point for opposing back lines, Larin got off to a flying start in 2016, notching goals in each of Orlando City's first three matches against RSL, Chicago and NYCFC.
Despite just turning 21 last month, Larin approached his off-season with the proper mindset. He knew his breakout rookie season would make him a marked man and he put in the necessary work to prepare for the extra physicality he'd face this season. Having a year under his belt to adjust to the length and grind of an MLS season compared to the lighter NCAA schedule he'd seen at UConn didn't hurt either.
"I was prepared for it," Larin remarked. "In the off-season I did things to get better and this year I think I started off well. I think it’s all about how you finish. You can start well but there’s two halves to the season."
Although Larin's unsustainable goal-per-game pace has stalled since those early weeks of the season, that doesn't mean he's run into a slump, and the numbers back that up. Despite being hampered by a hamstring that forced him off early against Portland on April 3 and saw him sit out the Lions' April 8 loss at Philly, Larin's non-penalty goals per 90-minute average still puts him in the same light as some of the league's premier scorers.
Larin's four goals in 558 minutes of action this season give him an average of 0.65 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes. While that is lower than his full season average of 0.80 non-PK goals per 90 last year, it still ranks him just below the league's leading scorer, Fanendo Adi (0.70), and ranks him ahead of prolific scorers such as David Villa (0.50), Kei Kamara (0.46), Sebastian Giovinco (0.44), Didier Drogba (0.43) and Dom Dwyer (0.41). Giovani dos Santos is currently scorching the league to the tune of 0.96 non-penalty scores per 90, which will almost certainly regress closer to the mean, but otherwise Larin is still among the league's most efficient goal scorers.
His sophomore campaign has also featured a pair of assists through his first eight appearances, which is two more than he registered in his 27 appearances as a rookie. In addition to his set-up for Adrian Winter in the dying moments against RSL, he also teed up the equalizer for Kevin Molino in last week's 1-1 draw with New York Red Bulls. It's only due to some questionable MLS stat-keeping that he doesn't have three assists – he played the ball that led to Carlos Rivas' late, first-time equalizer at New England on April 30 and, for some reason, wasn't credited for the service.
These numbers illustrate a player who is improving his all-around game in year two, maintaining one of the league's best goals per-90 averages from open play while adding distribution to his repertoire. A year of experience in MLS, an off-season of hard work and a boatload of talent are combining for Orlando City's first-ever MLS SuperDraft pick, and the goals will continue to come as long as Larin is able to stay healthy.