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Don’t Call it a Benching: Jason Kreis Makes His Stamp on Orlando City’s Lineup

The new gaffer seems to be installing a meritocracy in Orlando, as training effort earns starting spots and playing time.

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a new sheriff in town, and it’s pretty evident.

New Orlando City head coach made some surprising decisions Sunday night with his lineup against the New England Revolution, most notably benching impactful defensive midfielders Darwin Ceren and Cristian Higuita, both staples of the team’s starting central midfield under Adrian Heath.

Kreis chose to start Servando Carrasco and Antonio Nocerino instead, and rookie Hadji Barry over Brek Shea, raising questions about his lineup decisions afterward. Orlando City's new boss, who asked media not to use the word "benching" moving forward, said the choices were far more performance-based than tactical.

"Those players (the regular starters) weren’t chosen because of the performances I saw Wednesday night," Kreis said on Sunday following his first official match in charge of Orlando. "The players that were chosen had a stronger performance Wednesday night at the Stoke City match, and I want to enter this job and leave what has happened before in the past. I want to evaluate the player based on what I see in a week's performance and make decisions on the lineup based on what they have done in a week.

"Tonight, I wanted to reward the players I thought played a little better than others. Doesn’t really affect how I feel about the potential of the players that were left out tonight because I still think that there's a really, really high potential in those players as well. We're going to need all the players. It’s not going to be about 11, 12, or 13 players. It’s going to be about 28 players."

Kreis’ statement shows a drive towards a culture battling day in and day out for a spot in the starting lineup, not in a way we never saw under Heath, but in a way that choosing who deserves to start is more evidently linked to performance on the training ground than on habit.

That attitude, in turn, should drive players to give it their all each day at training, providing them with an actual opportunity to get better, and earn their spots.

That’s not saying this was never a directive under Heath, but public statements like this surely mean the players know more about what’s at stake, and a leaving players like Ceren and Higuita on the bench is an example of how far Kreis is willing to go to reward his players with opportunities.

That opportunity on Sunday gave Nocerino another chance to improve his form in front of the fans that have doubted him immensely this season. Nocerino, who's been playing much better soccer lately after struggling to adapt to Orlando and MLS early in the season, arguably showed more against New England than any other MLS match this season.

And Kreis’ response about starting the Italian midfielder was even more surprising and telling as to what he’s seen since arriving in Orlando.

"[I saw] a player that I think took particular interest in what we were trying to do tactically and has taken a particular interest in organizing the players around him," Kreis said. "I’ll be frank and tell you that I didn’t come here last week thinking he would start this weekend, I clearly did not, but he’s a player that in the training session on Tuesday and the match on Wednesday and the training session again on Friday earned his spot and I think he had a really nice performance."

More so than anything, it’s an encouraging sign that players are hearing and responding to what Kreis is asking for.