As we count down to the new year of 2021 — which will be Orlando City’s seventh in MLS and the Orlando Pride’s sixth in the NWSL — and say goodbye (and good riddance) to 2020, it’s time to look back at the club’s 10 best moments of the year.
Orlando City entered the 2020 calendar year with a lot of needs after a slightly improved but still subpar 2019 season. Among those needs was additional help at the striker position. Dom Dwyer experienced a slump during 2019 that saw the veteran forward missing far too many sitters and, while Tesho Akindele’s career year helped mitigate that somewhat, goals were still in short supply.
OCSC Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi turned to the MLS SuperDraft to try to select a striker for the future. What he got instead was a striker for the present.
Holding the fifth overall pick in the draft, somehow Virginia’s Daryl Dike slipped to the Lions. Inter Miami kicked off the SuperDraft by taking Clemson striker Robbie Robinson and then a defender and two midfielders went next. That allowed the striker many considered the best in the class to tumble down to where Muzzi could select him at No. 5 and Orlando City snapped up Dike with its first-round selection on Jan. 9.
“With our first pick we wanted to have something offensively,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said after the draft. “We were very excited to have Daryl there. He was the top forward in the college game and he’s going to give us a lot of power up front.”
It’s easy to look back after a draft and wonder how teams failed to identify a player who went on to a successful season. But even at the time of the draft, one had to wonder if the teams ahead of Orlando knew something that Muzzi didn’t, considering Dike’s collegiate history and obvious physical gifts.
Dike wasn’t supposed to come in and make an immediate impact. The Lions didn’t want to put that kind of pressure on the rookie. But when Dwyer went down with a knee injury during the MLS is Back Tournament, the younger brother of Bright Dike got his opportunity to shine.
It wasn’t smooth at first. Dike came in and performed like an overexcited bull in a China shop on his MLS debut on July 25 in the knockout stage of MLS is Back in a 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact. The rookie played 16 minutes and simply manhandled the Impact, committing three fouls in rapid succession and picked up his first professional yellow card.
Still, his strength, pace, and instincts were on full display. If he could control the energy he brought onto the pitch, it was easy to see Dike was a player who could make his mark on a game. As I wrote after that game:
Pareja used his substitutions to keep his troops fresh as time wound down. Those subs included the MLS debuts of rookies Darryl Dike and Joey DeZart. Dike immediately got on the ball and nearly fashioned himself a scoring chance before being cut off, but he was active and throwing his weight around. He looked strong and has good feet, but he’s very raw and will need to develop some.
After a few late appearances in MLS is Back, Dike got his first MLS start on Aug. 22 at Inter Miami. All he did in that first start was score his first MLS goal and add his first professional assist in the 3-2 road loss. Dike’s first pro goal showed both his power and his relentless motor as he fought off one of the best center backs in MLS, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, then was first to pounce on the rebound of his tremendous initial blast.
It was just the start for Dike, who went on to score eight goals and add four assists — the best performance by a rookie striker for the club since Cyle Larin’s record-setting performance in 2015. The Edmond, OK native added his first MLS brace in his second start, a 3-1 home win over Nashville SC. The rookie’s heroics earned him MLS Player of the Month honors for August.
Dike was poised to become the second Orlando City player to win MLS Rookie of the Year when the league suddenly did away with the award near the end of the season. Instead of honoring the top player in the rookie class, Major League Soccer changed the award to Young Player of the Year, moving the goalposts on Dike on Oct. 28 — just two weeks before the end of the regular season. That late-season change was both unexpected and unnecessary. MLS could have changed the award in the off-season at the very least, or added a separate category to honor young players who were already professionals before joining the league. Our Ben Miller pointed out the flaw in changing the award.
It isn’t just Dike getting shafted either. Henry Kessler has been phenomenal for the New England Revolution during his rookie year, and he wasn’t even one of the finalists. Given the shortlist for the YPOTY award, it would have been tough to justify him being one of the final nominees, but it still sucks because he had a very good chance of being recognized by the league for his efforts and now that won’t happen. With Mauricio Pineda also having a good season this year, it seems to me like MLS is leaving out an important section of players.
Dike ended up as a finalist for Young Player of the Year, but he was in the running against third-year pro — and league MVP candidate — Diego Rossi and second-year pro Brenden Aaronson. Measuring Dike’s performance a year out of college against players with more than twice the number of MLS starts seemed an uneven playing field and indeed Dike finished well behind Rossi for the award.
Still, it was an outstanding first MLS campaign for the rookie out of Virginia, who nearly put up a double-digit goal-scoring season in a shortened season while usually having to play every three or four days due to the congested schedule.
Dike’s performance in 2020 was enough to get him a look with the USMNT in December and he might have gotten his first cap if not for picking up a knock in training. Now the 20-year-old is on the radar of European clubs, who will watch his 2021 season with great interest. While that might scare some Orlando fans, it shouldn’t. If the club winds up selling Dike, it will no doubt bring back a strong financial return that can be re-invested into the club.
Orlando City fans should savor the play of Dike for as long as he remains in purple and not worry too much about the future. The Lions’ selection of the striker turned out to be a worthy selection as a top moment of the calendar year.
Come back through New Year’s Eve as we count down the remainder of Orlando City’s top 10 moments of 2020.
Previous Top 10 Moments of 2020
10. The Orlando Pride rally from three goals down to get a result vs. North Carolina.