Orlando City’s successful 2020 MLS campaign resulted in call-ups to the United States youth and senior national teams for multiple Lions. It started with Chris Mueller representing the senior side in a friendly against El Salvador in December and has continued on the U-23 team for Benji Michel and Andres Perea. Recently, Daryl Dike has also been named to the senior USMNT. While this is a source of pride for the club and its fans, it also could create some issues for the Lions in 2021.
In January, the United States held a united senior and U-23 team camp in Bradenton. It ended with a game for the senior side against Trinidad and Tobago at Exploria Stadium. The camp included four Orlando City players, with Mueller, Dike, and Perea taking part in the game. Michel also took part in the camp but didn’t get into the closing fixture.
The January camp allowed U.S. U-23 Head Coach Jason Kreis to get a look at his team heading into the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament this month. This is important considering that the team only gets together once every four years. Mueller is too old for the group and Dike wasn’t released by Barnsley FC, where he is currently playing on loan, but Perea and Michel were both called into the youth side.
It didn’t take long for the two Lions to get game action in Concacaf qualifying. Michel started on the right attacking side of the 4-3-3 formation, playing the first hour of the opening game. The same stoppage that saw the Homegrown Player depart also saw Perea enter the match for the final 30 minutes.
Neither player made much of an impact in the underwhelming 1-0 win over Costa Rica. In the second match against the Dominican Republic, Perea started and went the full 90 minutes, while Michel came on in the second half and had an assist on the final goal. Orlando City and its fans got to see two of its players take part in a competitive U.S. national team game, even if it was for the U-23 side.
This isn’t the first time Orlando City players have taken part in competitive international games. That goes back to the USL Pro days when Kevin Molino represented Trinidad and Tobago and Haiti called up Mechak Jerome, Jean Alexandre, and Bitielo Jean Jacque. But the difference now is that Orlando City players are playing for the club’s domestic national side, going beyond the occasional call-ups that Brek Shea and Dom Dwyer had in the Lions’ first several years in MLS.
While there is great pride for Orlando City and its fans in seeing Lions represent the United States, it could create a difficult situation during the 2021 MLS season. Despite not playing particularly well in the opening game, Michel and Perea settled in a bit more in the second game and seem to be well-liked by Kreis. Should the team qualify for the Olympics, they could potentially make the trip to Japan (although more young American players abroad would likely be released by their club teams to play in the event).
While it would be great for fans to see the players in the Olympic Games, the tournament is set to take place in July and August. The club would likely lose the two players for multiple weeks leading up to, during, and after the conclusion of the tournament.
It’s a problem the club has also seen with the Pride. Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, and Ali Krieger are among the NWSL players who have played for the United States, often missing league games while on international duty. It’s been an issue that has changed the club’s strategy for roster construction and now could affect the men’s side.
The Olympics won’t be nearly as devastating to the roster as the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup was to the Pride. That saw the club’s women’s team lose nearly its entire starting lineup to the game’s marquee tournament. But it could result in the team losing players who have become important Lions.
This creates a dilemma for Orlando City and its fans. On the one hand, they would love to see the national team qualify for its first Olympics since 2008 and be proud to see Lions representing the country. They also don’t want to lose Michel and Perea (or Dike, for that matter) for multiple games during what could be a crucial part of the 2021 MLS season.
While the United States sits in a good position, there is still no guarantee it will qualify for the Olympic Games. Four teams advance out of the two four-team groups and only the two teams reaching the final qualify. But the U.S. is in the tougher of the two groups and advancing to the semifinal would see them as favorites to qualify, along with Mexico.
The United States is now in an excellent position to qualify for the Olympics. While this would be great for U.S. Soccer, it could result in Orlando City losing some players for the final tournament. It would also allow the fans to watch young Lions in the tournament for the first time. It’s a conundrum that will face Orlando City and its fans as the U-23 national team’s qualifying campaign continues.