The 2016 MLS All-Star Game is scheduled for July 28 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, where the MLS's best will take on Arsenal of the English Premier League in the annual friendly showcase. The fan vote is in full swing, and eight Lions find themselves in the running to be selected by supporters to line up against the Gunners.
In addition to the Fan XI, Earthquakes Head Coach Dominic Kinnear will be allowed to select players of his choosing to fill out the roster, with two more players being added as "Commissioner's Picks" via Don Garber.
With Orlando City currently enjoying some time off during Copa América, we've got a good opportunity to look at City's All-Star candidates and break down which Lions have the best – and worst – chances to find themselves in San Jose come late July.
Based solely on on-field merit, Orlando City goalkeeper Joe Bendik has the best case to make the MLS All-Star roster in 2016.
Since his much-maligned signing by Orlando from Toronto FC, Bendik has done nothing but silence all critics with his play between the posts. The net-minder has made a bevy of incredible saves this season and has earned MLS's Save of the Week honor three times already through only 13 matches. Although the Lions' seven draws on the season are a source of frustration due to some missed opportunities to snag three points, Bendik's presence in goal is surely a huge reason why Orlando hasn't dropped more points.
Bendik, who is currently second in MLS with 47 saves, should absolutely be in the All-Star squad, but the nature of a fan vote means he'll have to beat out bigger names like Nick Rimando and Luis Robles. At the very least, he should earn a coach's nod from Kinnear.
A pair of OCSC defenders is on the All-Star ballot: left back Brek Shea and center back Seb Hines.
While Hines has been Adrian Heath's first-choice center back when healthy this season, it's tough to see him being selected by fans outside of Orlando. He's been solid, if unspectacular, while forming a partnership with Tommy Redding, registering 2.1 tackles per game to go along with 2.4 interceptions.
Shea has the name recognition to garner some fan votes, but he's clearly still a work in progress on the left side of the Lions' defense. His size, skill, and athleticism make for some highlight plays – see his curler vs. Portland – but his defensive performance has left much to be desired at times. With some highly accomplished players like Laurent Ciman, Matt Hedges and Kendall Waston (last season's MLS XI defenders), to name a few, in the running along with big names like Ashley Cole and well-known U.S. Men's National Teamers like Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley, either of these players earning a fan bid seems unlikely, and their play probably hasn't made a coach's bid much likelier.
Verdict: Shea and Hines out.
Orlando nominees: Kaká, Darwin Cerén and Cristian Higuita.
Kaká is a near lock to make the Fan XI, as he did last year before being voted by the fans, via Snapchat, to also be the squad's captain and subsequently registering a goal and an assist in an MVP showing against Tottenham in Colorado. Ricky's global appeal alone makes him a shoo-in alongside some of the league's biggest names, and he's also registered a pair of goals and five assists this season and put on a show on the national stage in a 4-1 win over Portland for America to see.
The other two have a steeper hill to climb, but both are among the league's more underrated defensive midfielders.
Higuita is a budding star who excels at breaking up opposition play in the middle of the park, leading MLS in tackles per match with 4.9 and pacing OCSC with three interceptions per outing. Cerén is also an integral part of City's midfield, trailing only Higuita in the side with 3.1 tackles per game to go along with an 83.2% passing clip.
Lacking the "sexy" name recognition, the fan vote seems stacked against the midfield duo but a coach's nod wouldn't be surprising for either, especially the young Higuita.
Verdict: Kaká in; Higuita (undeservingly) and Cerén out, with a shot at coach's selection for Higuita.
Lions on the ballot: Cyle Larin and Kevin Molino.
Larin has a very strong argument to make the All-Star team, and his Canadian roots give him an added bonus of potential votes from fans north of the border (hello, Toronto). Kid Fantastic has picked up where he left off last season's record-setting rookie campaign, notching seven goals (tied for the third-most in MLS) in the early season while also dishing out three assists, a new facet of his game that we didn't see last season.
Larin is one of the most efficient scorers in the league once again, outpacing all but one other player on the league's current top 10 goal-scoring list in non-penalty goals per 90 minutes (0.71). Giovani dos Santos (0.73) is the only player currently ahead of him in that regard among the league's top scorers, and his lead has shrunk significantly. Larin is easily ahead of stars like David Villa (0.52), Sebastian Giovinco (0.49), Bradley Wright-Phillips (0.62) and Chris Wondolowski (0.42) in this metric, which highlights just how good the second-year striker is. Now he just needs an endorsement from fellow Toronto native and noted sports fanboy Drake, which would cement him in the fan vote forever.
Another player who finds himself among the league's stars in non-penalty scoring is the one and only Kevin Molino. After tearing his ACL in 2015, Molino is announcing himself to the league this year with six goals (just outside the league's top 10), three assists, and a 25% shot conversion rate with 0.50 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes played. This is no surprise to longtime Orlando supporters, but Molino will still likely struggle in the fan vote due to being relatively unknown to other fans around the league.
Verdict: Larin in; Molino out.
With all of the above predictions, it should be noted again that fan voting is notoriously shrug worthy, but you can always count on the big names getting (often undeserved) bids, and a strong national team presence is also a big help, which is illustrated by the fact that six of last year's Fan XI selections have been USMNT regulars at some point.
Players like Molino and Higuita will likely be underappreciated by the fan vote, but we can hope that their on-field merits at least garner some consideration from the manager. At the very least, we can count on Kaká and, hopefully, Larin representing the purple in San Jose, although big-name forwards like Villa, Giovinco, Drogba, Keane, Dempsey, etc., could certainly make things tougher for the young Canadian despite his All-Star level production.