There are opportunities to had up front at Orlando City.
Following the club’s decision to part ways with veteran striker Júlio Baptista this off-season, the Lions boast only one established MLS striker in Cyle Larin, who has totaled 31 goals in his first two years as a professional. Behind Larin, however, there is uncertainty.
One player looking to prove himself as a possible solution is second-year forward Hadji Barry. The UCF alum registered no goals and a lone assist last season while seeing inconsistent minutes. Barry has the eye of Orlando City Head Coach Jason Kreis, however, thanks to a good first impression.
“He was a player that kind of opened my eyes when I first got here,” Kreis told reporters following training on Tuesday. “I didn’t know much about him at all, and then in the [friendly] match that we played against Stoke City played very well — he scored a goal and earned a starting position.”
Barry earned his goal against Stoke with pace and aggression, and he would go on to start the next two league matches following that outing. Barry started each of the first three MLS matches following Kreis’ appointment, which rounded out a four-game summer stretch in which he saw 244 of his 293 total minutes in 2016.
While Barry earned his shot to start early under Kreis, he was unable to take full advantage of the opportunity and fell out of the starting XI. After that four-game starting run against Vancouver, Columbus, New England, and Seattle from late July into early August, Barry saw himself relegated to the bench and was an unused sub in City’s last 12 games of the campaign. Despite fizzling out toward the end of the season, Kreis has full confidence in his young forward and believes his struggles can be chalked up to youth.
“He did well over a couple of games, but then started to falter a little bit,” Kreis said. “I think he is exactly like most of the young players in this league where they put together a couple of really good games and then they’re gonna go through a little bit of a rut, and then it’s a question of when they come back out of that.”
Kreis believes Barry has a chip on his shoulder entering the 2017 season, and he’s hit the ground running in preseason. After an off-season of work, Barry has impressed in training sessions and registered a goal in Orlando’s first preseason friendly, a 5-0 win over Jacksonville University, last week.
With Kreis’ preferred formation featuring two strikers, there’s a hole to be filled without Baptista in the side. Barry and Carlos Rivas are currently working to prove themselves worthy of playing time up front alongside Larin. Rivas may be more of an attacking midfielder than a true forward, but Kreis has featured him up front since his arrival, making him a candidate.
Bryan Róchez, on the other hand, had an impressive showing toward the end of the 2015 season, scoring three goals on a 27.2% conversion rate with over one goal per 90 minutes played, but saw zero MLS minutes last year and was loaned to Honduran club Real CD España in the summer. Kreis’ recent comments suggest the club is looking to unload Róchez, however, which could help Barry’s case.
While there’s formidable competition, Barry has the advantage of a year of experience under his belt and feels more comfortable on the pitch.
“I know what to expect now,” Barry said Tuesday. “Last year I didn’t know what to expect as a first-year rookie [with] all the nerves. Now I can relax and just play the game that I love.”
Playing relaxed and with something to prove could be a perfect combination for the 24-year-old striker. Kreis’ comments paint a picture of a manager with clear confidence in his young player’s ability, which should boost Barry’s confidence further combined with that year of experience.
While it’s going well right now, though, Barry realizes there’s still a lot of work to be done, and he appeared intent on putting that work in this week. He acknowledged that it felt good to get a goal in the first friendly of the preseason when asked, but immediately switched his focus back to the training ground.
“The most important thing is we just wanted to get a result and we got that. Now it’s time to get to the training ground and try to get better for the next game.”