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Lion Links: 5/7/22

Orlando City visits Montréal, Pride face Angel City for the first time, USMNT dual-national recruiting, and more.

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NWSL: NJ/NY Gotham FC at Orlando Pride Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Away Day, Mane Landers. It is a quiet weekend in Exploria Stadium as both the Lions and Pride are away. Orlando City heads to Montreal for a 4 p.m. start time this afternoon, while we will be staying up late on Sunday to see the Pride face Angel City at 8 p.m. So start getting your at-home tailgating supplies ready, because it is going to be a long weekend on the couch. But before we fire up the grills, we will stop and take a moment to wish Orlando Pride forward Sydney Leroux a very happy birthday! May it be Syd’s best year yet, and may her son Cassius be celebrating with backflips in our academy soon. Now, on to the links!

Orlando City Heads North

The Lions take on CF Montréal today at 4 p.m. in Stade Saputo. Montréal is knocking on the door of the third place position in the Eastern Conference, sitting only three points behind Orlando. Head Coach Oscar Pareja is ready for the second time the clubs face off this season, noting both Decision Day of last year and this year’s home opener in a budding rivalry.

“We’re good, excited and working towards this game in Canada against Montréal, a rival that we’ve already played here at home in our opener. It’s a place that brought us good memories from our last game of the regular season last year when we clinched [the playoffs],” Head Coach Oscar Pareja said. “At the same time, we do respect them a lot. They’re a good team that has good coaching there too and I see a very clear model in the way they do their things, so we have been preparing this week for that like always.”

Montréal is coming off a 2-1 home victory over Atlanta United. Former Lions left back Kamal Miller scored in the fourth minute and later assisted the game-winner in the 82nd. The makeshift Lions back line will be without Robin Jansson this week as he serves his yellow card accumulation suspension, and the backups must keep all eyes on Djordje Mihailovic, who leads Montréal with four goals and four assists this season.

Pride Fly Across the Country

Familiar faces will be on the other side of the ball Sunday night, as former Pride players Ali Riley, Dani Weatherholt, Jasmyne Spencer and Brittany Isenhour all line up for Angel City FC. In its first NWSL match, ACFC won 2-1 over the North Carolina Courage with goals from Vanessa Gilles and Jun Endo.

Tomorrow will serve as the first-ever meeting between the Pride and Angel City. The match is set to kick off at 8 p.m. at Banc of California Stadium. With no history between the two clubs, we can only look at what Orlando has done in similar situations against expansion teams. Last year, Orlando finished with a 3-1-2 record in all competitions against the expansion clubs. This is a very different roster build though and lacks firepower as the Pride look for their first goal of the 2022 season.

It is always bittersweet to see former players lined up against the club. However, the match also will be a homecoming of sorts for some of the Orlando squad and staff. Head Coach Amanda Cromwell and Assistant Coach Sam Greene return to Los Angeles where they previously coached UCLA. In addition, Sydney Leroux, Megan Montefusco, Darian Jenkins, and Viviana Villacorta are all former UCLA players. Former USC graduates Leah Pruitt and Kaylie Collins will also be making their return to the city.

USMNT, Mexico Battle for Dual-Nationals

Mexico called in three Mexican-American dual-national players for their recent friendly vs. Guatemala and is now reportedly attempting to have playmaker Alex Mendez to switch his allegiance as he finds his form in the Primeira Liga for F.C. Vizela. But overall, USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter is not worried. He just wants his players to find a genuine connection with who they choose to represent.

“The thing is, I always say, I want them to choose with their heart. I want them to feel good about it,” he explained. “And could you imagine growing up with parents and having a really strong cultural background and then being able to play for the country of that background? I think that’s special. Even though the United States has given them that opportunity, there’s still this deep connection to their country, and some of them have to leave their country and want to go back, but they can’t. And so for me, if a guy really chooses that, I’m happy. I’m happy for him because that’s what he feels in his heart.”

In his tenure with the USMNT, Berhalter has a great track record in finding and landing talent and encouraging that connection among the camp. Players like Ricardo Pepi and Jesus Ferreira have both chosen to represent the United States.

“When I speak to guys like Ricardo and Jesus, and Jonathan Gomez, and have conversations with them, they feel a connection,” said the coach. “It’s not always easy, though. I think that, in general, I would like for our Latin players to be pushed more, in a positive way, that we’re looking to develop them more and that we’re putting more effort into developing the Latin community as well, because I think it’s important. We talk to all these guys. We talk constantly to all these players. We’re very engaged in this process, really engaged in the process.”

Time will soon tell if all of the recruiting and nurturing of the young players will pay off. With the 2022 FIFA World Cup just on the horizon, we will see if the U.S. has in fact grabbed the best attackers in Pepi and Ferreira when goals are needed and hardware is on the line.

New Eras for RSL and Nashville

Nashville SC opened its new stadium, GEODIS Park, last weekend as it welcomed in 30,000 fans. How do you get 30,000 people to show up for what is still a relatively new club? CEO Ian Ayre thinks it’s simple.

“We approached this team and bringing it to this community in that way: Being good people who do good stuff. Not surprisingly when we took that attitude, it resonated with the city. We got a following we hoped for and then some.”

They also have tied in the Nashville “bad boy” of music vibe with the build-out of their club. This is most notable in their recent contract extension of USMNT and Designated Player Walker Zimmerman.

“We’re a team that when the opposition are preparing scouting reports, they’re going to talk about how they hate to play against us,” general manger Mike Jacobs said. “Whether it’s being stingy defensively, tough players, guys with dynamic pace and guys with personalities who relish being the bad guy and wearing the black cowboy hat. It’s a group that’s relentless.”

Similarly, the newest ownership of David Blitzer and Ryan Smith have made changes to the experience Real Salt Lake fans have come to know, all within two months of buying the club prior to the home opener. This started with a focus on making needed updates to Rio Tinto Stadium but also the overall fan experience.

“I still remember walking around this arena with Ryan six, seven weeks ago,” said Blitzer. “Ryan’s got a really good eye and he’s pointing out X and Y, and we can change that if we fix that, and we can make a better fan experience by doing that. And frankly, John [Kimball, RSL’s president] and his team jumped on it. Yeah, there’s plenty to go, but they did a really nice job in a short period.”

RSL has also started to partner up with local youth soccer to invite children out to games and even club captain Damir Kreilach has donated 100 tickets to each game to youth of underpriviledged backgrounds. This number has since grown to 400 tickets, thanks to matching donations.

While both of these clubs continue to mold into what they want their future to hold, one thing is certain — the future of current MLS clubs, along with expansion, is brighter when it is fan-first and fan-focused.

Free Kicks
  • The USMNT 2022 Home and Away kits might just have been leaked.

That just about wraps it up. What is your favorite away day tradition or at-home tailgate food? Let me know in the comments below. Vamos Orlando!