Seven years ago, Cameron Lancaster was on a very different career path. Aged 19, the London-born forward was getting plenty of time training with the first team of his local club, Tottenham Hotspur. He had just returned from a short loan spell at Dagenham & Redbridge the spring prior — then in England’s League One — and had been tapped as the next forward to break through for the first team.
His debut in the Premier League finally came in January 2012, when the young forward saw the field for the final 15 minutes of a 3-1 victory over Wigan Athletic. They would be the only 15 minutes of his career in north London.
Lancaster had a pair of injuries starting the next summer. A terrible groin injury was followed by a torn ACL. His absence allowed the next forward in line to take those opportunities; that forward just happened to be Harry Kane. Cameron was released at the end of his contract in 2014.
Lancaster landed with Stevanage in League Two, a stay that saw him score one goal in five appearances. Cam felt his minutes didn’t match his efforts.
“I was just trying to get fit, play some games and see where it would take me, but the manager there didn’t really give me enough time, I feel,” he told Planet Football.
He was rescued with a call from then-Louisville City Head Coach James O’Connor, who asked him to join the inaugural roster for the USL expansion side in the spring of 2015. Cameron’s agent told him it would be his last shot at playing professionally.
Lancaster took that opportunity and ran with it. After steady performances in 2016 and 2017, he became a revelation in the USL this season, exploding for 28 goals across all competitions and being named to the All-League team. Cam, now 26 years old, and Louisville City will try for their second-straight USL title on Thursday night as they take on Didier Drogba’s Phoenix Rising.
With O’Connor embarking on a mission to restructure Orlando City’s roster this off-season — one that he told Pro Soccer USA was imbalanced, particularly up top — it’s natural to ask if the Irishman will give his former striker another call. But after the Lions dealt with an off-season full of hype and nothing to show for it, is dipping into the lower leagues yet again a viable option for a team desperate for results?
The Lower-League Conundrum
The distance in the level of play between the second tier of American soccer (USL and previously NASL) to MLS is more like a chasm. A select few make their way at the top level, but more often than not players get lost in the shuffle and tend to bounce back to the second division sooner rather than later. But with Orlando City strapped for cap space, the club may be forced to search for high production at low cost.
Stefano Pinho, a Golden Boot winner in the NASL in 2015 and 2017, seemed to be one of the safest bets for the Lions from the lower leagues but the Brazilian was ultimately disappointing in his first season in MLS. Sean Okoli and Dane Kelly — who won USL scoring titles in 2016 and 2017, respectively — had similar experiences when they were handed MLS opportunities. Matt Fondy, Lancaster’s teammate at Louisville who set the scoring record Cam would go on to break, didn’t even get an MLS contract.
Sometimes, the individual talent just doesn’t translate. For strikers, there’s always the chance that the production is a product of the system and the players around them. Pinho came from a star-studded Miami side that was far better than most of its opponents. Lancaster, likewise, would come from a Louisville team that has been excellent for several years in USL.
In any case, stories like Christian Ramirez (NASL’s top scorer in 2014 and 2016) and Kevin Molino (USL’s Golden Boot winner in 2014) will keep teams searching the lower divisions for the next goal-scoring gem. What makes Lancaster so tantalizing is that, statistically, he’s been better than all of the above.
By the Numbers
Cam’s statistics in 2018 were nothing short of eye-popping. Across 37 matches in all competitions so far, Lancaster has scored 28 goals and chipped in another three assists. With 2,344 minutes played so far this year, the Englishman is contributing 1.19 goals for every 90 minutes played. USL MVP favorite Emmanuel Ledesma, who will reportedly join FC Cincinnati in MLS, managed 1.03 goals and assists per 90.
For reference, Lancaster was more efficient than Josef Martinez has been for Atlanta United this season (though the Venezuelan was close with 1.15 goals contributed per 90). That is ridiculous.
2018 is obviously an outlier for Lancaster’s career so far, but the surprising thing is that it’s not that much of an outlier. 2017 — Cam’s first full season as the starter in Louisville — saw him score 10 and assist two for 0.92 goals and assists per 90 minutes. That’s exactly the same as Pinho’s production that saw him win a Golden Boot and NASL MVP with Miami FC in 2017. Dane Kelly, the USL Golden Boot winner and MVP the same year, clocked in at 0.98.
The biggest difference between this season and prior years is the amount of playing time Lancaster has received. Sidelined in 2015 and working his way back in 2016, this season is the first time Lancaster has cracked 1,100 minutes in league play.
It’s not something Orlando City fans want to hear. After four years of dealing with inconsistent availability from major contributors, another player with a handful of major surgeries is at least a red flag. Lancaster’s issues didn’t stop at Tottenham. His first season in Louisville was cut short after just one appearance thanks to yet another ACL injury.
The good news is that Lancaster rebounded well from the setback and has yet to play fewer than 24 matches in a season for LCFC since then. You can read his own thoughts on his journey from rehab to record-breaker here. There have been a few niggling issues but nothing to the same level as some members of Orlando City’s current roster. Still, with a history of knee issues, the topic should at least be considered given the Lions’ need for players that can contribute consistently.
Obviously, Lancaster fits O’Connor’s preferred style of play. The English striker was a key part of the heavyweight USL team that the Irishman assembled. There is the concern that he could burn a coveted international spot, but with four years playing in the U.S., chances are he could qualify for a green card. But at 26 years old, he’s entering his prime and should have his best seasons still ahead of him.
His Premier League pedigree is obvious when you watch him in action. Cameron is dynamic; even though he prefers to play on the shoulder of the last defender, he can also drop in and collect the ball in midfield, and, while he isn’t the paciest player, his movement is clever and he understands how to drag defenders to open up opportunities for teammates. Theoretically, he could drop deeper and pair with Dom Dwyer as a second forward, but it might not be an ideal partnership.
While he does favor his right foot, he’s also capable with his left. A quarter of the goals he’s scored over the past two seasons were bagged with his weak foot and they weren’t just tap-ins:
Though he only stands at 5-foot-10, he can still be a threat aerially and has managed a few headed goals every year, including title-winners. He has the strength to fend off center backs and play with his back to goal. He also has a knack for finding the top corner on free kicks.
Lancaster is as well-rounded of a center forward as you’ll find in the USL. This might be the biggest difference between the Englishman and Pinho — where the Brazilian needs a lot of help from his teammates to be successful, Lancaster can create his own chances and pull magic out of his hat in the biggest moments.
According to Transfermarkt (which isn’t always the most reliable), Cam’s contract ends after this season. But he told the Louisville Courier-Journal last month, “I’m going to sort of wait until the end of the season and sort of assess my options and take it from there, I think.”
After an outstanding season, he’ll have several suitors; for James O’Connor and Orlando City, Cameron Lancaster might be a risk worth taking.