Since the arrival of Orlando City’s new head coach, James O’Connor, the inner workings of the club and its starting 11 have changed in a significant way. O’Connor is allowing his personnel to battle each other in training for starting positions that were previously held down by what some may have referred to as stalwarts.
Justin Meram was left out of the previous two 18-man rosters and Tony Rocha was handed a start in MLS league play in an ostensibly interesting position as a winger while serving as a center midfielder. But the most notable change is that Joe Bendik has handed over the gloves to Earl Edwards Jr.
“Joe’s reaction was what I would expect, he was very professional,” O’Connor said of his decision after last Saturday night’s game. “For me, as I said to Joe, I think he’s come under a lot of pressure. Because he’s such a great individual, he’s put himself under a lot of pressure. I wanted to try and help Joe as well. I wanted to use a little bit of my experience to help him. But I think when you look at Earl, we’ve got a quality goalkeeper as well. We’re fortunate in that we’ve got two excellent goalkeepers.
I’m not sure if one could label it as a goalkeeping dilemma, as it appears that O’Connor has identified Edwards Jr. as the more suitable keeper for his tactics and style of play at this time. But there’s certainly some interest here as Bendik has been a strong shot-stopper over his three years with the Lions since being acquired from Toronto FC in 2015.
He’s won countless Man of the Match awards, end-of-season accolades, and praise from both the club’s management and supporters. He’s been the closest thing that the Lions have had to a true, guaranteed starter since their journey into MLS. He dons the No. 1 kit, which is typically reserved for a club’s best, and often starting, goalkeeper.
Apparently, Edwards Jr. made quite the impression on his new head coach and has been the starter since the Lions’ MLS clash with Toronto FC on July 14, a 2-1 win. Edwards deserved a clean sheet on the night, but a late Nick Hagglund strike snatched that away in the dying seconds of the match. The marking on the back post was poor and Edwards Jr. could do nothing to prevent the goal.
He was also handed the start in the Lions’ 1-0 loss to the Philadelphia Union, crashing out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the quarterfinals. Again, the fourth minute Alejandro Bedoya strike, the only goal on the day, couldn’t have been prevented by Edwards Jr. and was a result of dreadful marking in the box during a corner kick. He even got a hand on the initial, powerful header, but Bedoya was there, unmarked, to send the deflection into the roof of the net. Aside from this early moment, Edwards Jr. was brilliant on the day and made several key saves that kept the Lions in the hunt for a semifinal appearance.
With Edwards Jr. continuing to impress, things are starting to look bleak for Bendik’s chances in Orlando as he’s certainly good enough to break into starting 11s elsewhere. So, assuming O’Connor sticks with Edwards Jr. for the time being, what’s next for Bendik?
Something tells me that after starting for a club for three different coaches over a span of three years, Bendik wouldn’t want to sit idly by and watch the man that took his job find success when he couldn’t. Then again, I don’t know Joe. He seems to have taken the change in stride — see O’Connor’s comment above — and has been a consummate professional in remaining positive and providing guidance to the other goalkeepers on the roster. He even ensured that the team waited for Edwards before saluting the home crowd in attendance following the Lions’ 2-1 win over the Reds. He’s a fiery competitor, though, so I’d imagine it to be difficult for him to be the second option for the Lions.
With two other young goalkeepers behind Edwards and Bendik, O’Connor may be considering offloading one. Adam Grinwis and Mason Stajduhar both have bright futures, and it’s possible that O’Connor has identified Bendik as his most useful trading chip in the bunch. With massive interest in the Columbus Crew’s Zack Steffen and Toronto FC’s Alex Bono coming from across the pond, it’s possible that there will be a few MLS clubs scouring for a new man between the sticks. While a recent $3.9 million bid for Steffen’s services was declined by the Crew, he’s clearly a level ahead of the majority of MLS keepers and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before he makes the transition into a European league.
Toronto FC’s Alex Bono is in a similar situation, although there haven’t been recent offers for his services disclosed to the public. Bendik spent three of the first four years of his career in Toronto, and should Bono make a move elsewhere, it would make sense on all fronts to send Bendik back to Toronto to usurp the starting role in exchange for valuable talent, acquisition money, or draft picks.
Then again, maybe O’Connor is sending a message to Bendik to pick up his play because his spot isn’t guaranteed. This could light a fire under Bendik and raise his level of play. Even Edwards himself acknowledged that the open competition for spots in the team is raising the quality of the Lions’ training sessions.
“He told everyone and keeps reiterating ‘I’m going to play anybody that I think will give me the best chance to win’,” the goalkeeper said following last weekend’s game. “I think that should instill confidence in everybody. You can see the level in training getting better and I think he’s, like I said, instilling confidence in everybody.”
Nobody knows what O’Connor is planning except O’Connor. The only thing that’s certain is that he’s going to deploy the lineup that he believes gives his club the best chance of winning. Where that leaves Edwards and Bendik is uncertain at this junction, but you can bet the house that I’ll be following every step of the way with a microscope, doing my best to decipher the actions of a new head coach that knows his seat was hot before he sat down on it. It’s not just his seat that’s hot though; just ask Joe.