This has been an extraordinary rookie season for Daryl Dike. Despite coming out of the MLS SuperDraft, an increasingly overlooked and redundant source of talent, he has played at an elite level. The 20-year-old striker was one of the top prospects in that draft after 10 goals and eight assists his final season at Virginia, but slipped to Orlando City with the fifth pick. Given Orlando City and Oscar Pareja’s history developing SuperDraft picks, it was a match made in heaven.
Dike didn’t start the season with many expectations, not even making an appearance until the knockout stages of the MLS is Back Tournament against Montreal. The expectation was that Dom Dwyer would lead the line with Tesho Akindele in reserve, but an injury to Dwyer forced the youngster up the pecking order. It wasn’t until the regular season resumed in August that Dike was truly unleashed. In the first three games of the restart, he made his first three professional starts, scoring three goals and assisting on another two. His performances were impressive enough to earn him MLS Player of the Month honors for August. After a slightly down stretch of 10 games, when he only registered one goal and one assist, Daryl found his best form yet, scoring in his last four games of the season.
It has been a sensational season and an incredibly promising one for an Orlando City side that has been starved for good striker play. Dike has had one of the best seasons for a center forward in club history, with eight goals and four assists. The only strikers with more goal contributions in a season for the Lions are Cyle Larin and Dom Dwyer. Since Larin departed for Turkey in 2018, Orlando has been incredibly poor up top. Despite some successes, such as his 13-goal output in 2018, Dwyer has been a disappointment in his return to Central Florida. Last season, Dwyer managed only 11 goal contributions — one fewer than Dike this year, despite playing 400 more minutes than the youngster.
In some ways, Dike has played better than Dwyer, even at his best. In his best season, 2014 with Sporting Kansas City, Dwyer registered 22 goals and an assist, by far his best return in an MLS campaign. While Daryl is nowhere near that return in raw numbers, his underlying stats suggest he’s been outperforming the veteran. In 2014, Dwyer managed 0.76 goals and assists per 90 minutes, compared to Dike’s enormous 0.88 g+a per 90. While this metric isn’t the be-all, end-all, especially given Dike’s small sample size, it is a testament to Dike’s consistent lethality in the final third. His goal contributions per 90 is also slightly better than Larin’s rate of 0.8 g+a per 90 in his rookie season, which if you remember was his best with the Lions.
What really makes Dike special among all Orlando City strikers is his creativity and ability with the ball. While he’s had his fair share of mishandled touches, he’s been very good on the dribble. Per FotMob, he’s completed 12 take-ons at a rate of 63%. While he only has 0.7 successful take-ons per match, the efficiency is far greater than Larin or Dwyer. Both Larin and Dwyer averaged closer to 40% on the dribble during their time in purple. Dike’s massive advantage in one-v-ones is due in large part to his unbelievable athleticism. While Larin was also a big strong forward, neither he nor Dwyer are in the same ballpark as Dike. He’s much bigger than either (Larin is the same height but Dike has almost 30 pounds on him) but also surprisingly pacier than either as well.
His physical capabilities have allowed him to constantly win battles against MLS’s best center backs, including Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman, while his technical facilities are noticeably improving. As for his creativity, his assist numbers are good while his holdup play and willingness to drop into midfield are already elite. While his assist numbers are slightly inflated due to MLS counting secondary assists, he’s been very good at opening up opportunities for his teammates.
Dike’s performances are excellent compared to his Orlando City predecessors, and his play has generated interest from the United States Men’s National Team (although he is also eligible for Nigeria, which his brother and sister represented). The top striker for the USMNT as of late has been Gyasi Zardes, but Dike has played nearly as well as the Columbus star this season. Zardes has four more goal contributions than the Orlando talisman, but he’s played nearly 500 more minutes. He and Dike have nearly identical underlying numbers with a similar rate of goals and assists per 90 and successful dribbles. If Zardes is the starting number nine for Greg Berhalter, then Dike absolutely deserves a shout. But Zardes isn’t the USMNT player that Dike most reminds me of. That honor goes to Jozy Altidore.
Dike’s numbers in 2020 were very similar to Altidore’s in his best season before moving to Europe. In his second season with the New York Red Bulls when he was only 18, Jozy bagged nine goals and four assists at a rate of 0.84 per 90. Sound familiar? While Jozy was a few years younger than Daryl is now, MLS of 2007 was a much different place. For Dike to replicate these numbers in modern MLS is an incredible feat. Based on how he’s played, Dike absolutely deserves the chance to fill the aging boots of Altidore with the USMNT. But he isn’t the only young striker on Berhalter’s mind.
The other breakout forward of the season was Toronto FC’s Ayo Akinola. Akinola, who like Dike is eligible to represent Nigeria, has drawn attention from USMNT fans with his nine-goal effort in 2020. No disrespect to Akinola, but Dike has massively outperformed him. They have a similar ability in front of goal and are both athletic freaks, but Daryl is a much more complete player with better creative and dribbling numbers. While both players could be huge for the USMNT in the coming years, it’s Dike who has really shined in 2020.
The 2020 season has been a weird and exciting time for Orlando City, and few things are more exciting than Dike’s play this year. He has shown all the signs of a superstar in the making and looks set to be a big part of the USMNT or Nigeria Super Eagles in the coming years. But for now, let’s just hope he can continue this dominant play and help the Lions to a successful run in the MLS Cup playoffs.