After an impressive 2020 rookie season that saw Daryl Dike score eight goals in 17 appearances, many thought the young striker would be Orlando City’s go-to scorer this year. It took a while for Dike to become a fixture in the team’s starting lineup, but he’s hitting his stride at the right time for the Lions.
Following the 2020 MLS season, Orlando City sent Dike on loan to Barnsley FC in England. The 21-year-old caught fire during his loan spell, scoring nine goals in 21 games for the Championship side. The Oklahoma native played so well that Barnsley wanted to extend his loan beyond the start of the 2021 MLS season.
While Orlando City fans were pleased to see Dike play so well in Europe, it created some problems at home. Dike has been the only Orlando City striker that can be depended upon to consistently score, despite the few games he’s played.
Orlando City brought in Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato to help in the goal-scoring department. The former AC Milan striker has been excellent at times in his career, but often injured. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that he was even on the roster as the 32-year-old suffered a knee injury in the first game of the season against Atlanta United and has not been on the field since.
The injury to Pato and Dike’s extended stay in England left Orlando with limited striking options that included Benji Michel, Silvester van der Water, and Tesho Akindele. While van der Water is in his first season in MLS, Akindele is an MLS veteran that has a reputation for good hold-up play but not scoring goals. Van der Water and Akindele have each scored three goals this season, while Michel hasn’t done much better, with four goals.
Dike returned from England and joined Orlando City on June 19, eight games into the season. The big striker gave Orlando City fans what they were hoping for in his second appearance of the year, netting a brace against the San Jose Earthquakes on June 22. However, he departed again after four games to join the United States Men’s National Team for the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup.
An injury during the Gold Cup meant that Dike wouldn’t appear for Orlando City again until Aug. 27. While Dike was on international duty, Orlando City’s goals had to be distributed throughout the team. Nani led the team with three goals in those nine league games and Michel, Andres Perea, and Antonio Carlos each had a pair.
Dike scored in his second appearance back, but then went on a three-game goal drought except for an own goal in Atlanta. After getting used to being back, the striker has hit his stride, scoring in three consecutive games.
“I think he’s refreshed after that long period where he was absent,” Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja said following Dike’s winning goal against D.C. United Saturday night. “And then he came back and tried to re-adapt himself to the rhythm here. Being in the summer with the national team as well, it costs something to him. But now he’s very fresh. I think he’s working focused on what he needs to do. And that is rewarded for him on such a night like (Saturday), because his presence in the box is always important.”
More important than Dike scoring in three consecutive games is that they’ve come at important times. The first came in New England last weekend. After Adam Buksa gave the Revolution an early lead, Dike responded nine minutes later with an equalizer. The goal got the Lions back into the game.
The striker had a similar impact in the following game in Nashville. Hany Mukhtar and Randall Leal gave the hosts a two-goal lead with half an hour remaining. In the 76th minute, Dike barged into the box and drew a penalty. Despite shying away from taking penalties previously, the young striker stepped to the spot and converted a goal that allowed the Lions to claw back in the match and then earn a draw in stoppage time.
Dike had an even bigger impact Saturday night against D.C. United. Using his strength, he created a golden opportunity for Akindele late, which was saved. In injury time, he took it upon himself, getting his head to a corner and putting away the game-winning goal.
Through 28 games, Nani currently leads the team in scoring with nine goals in 23 appearances. Dike’s three goals in the last three games has put him second on the team with six goals in 12 games, a scoring pace of a goal every other game.
The Eastern Conference standings are crowded as only three points separate third and eighth place. The close race means that one goal could be the difference between a home playoff game and missing out on the playoffs altogether.
An imposing figure up top, Dike’s presence itself is essential to the team’s success. But the striker’s current form puts the Lions in a great position to finish the season strong and make a run in the postseason. It’s an ultimate goal that is at the front of Dike’s mind.
“I think every forward wants to score, and I think it’s great,” Dike said after the Lions’ win Saturday night. “But at the same time, I want wins. And I think, obviously, helping the team in whatever I can do is always what I want to do. And the goals are nice, but nights like this are the ones that are even better. Maybe a win and a goal, but a win’s the most important thing. Of course, I always love getting goals, but at the end of the day three points, especially at this time of the year, is something that you need.”
If Orlando City is going to make the playoffs and make a run in the postseason, it needs someone to count on up top. That dependable player has been missing all year. But Dike’s current run of scoring shows that he will likely be that player, providing the one thing the Lions have been missing this season.