USL Pro is in just its fourth season, but the United States Soccer Federation’s third-tier league already has a dynasty in Orlando City (Fla.) SC, which will move up to top-tier Major League Soccer next season.
In their first three USL Pro seasons, the Lions were 54-9-18 and won two regular-season and two postseason championships.
Entering tonight’s match at Bonney Field against Republic FC (10-6-2), the Lions are 14-0-3 and running away from everyone in the 14-team league.
Orlando City has a 10-point lead over the second-place Richmond Kickers and a 13-point lead over third-place Sacramento with 11 regular-season matches to play.
“It should be a fun game, a game for us to go out and express ourselves and see where we are at this point of the season,” said Preki, Republic FC’s coach. “They’re a good team, an organized team that is ready for MLS. So it’s going to be a hard game.”
While Republic FC is a long shot to catch Orlando City for the regular-season title, a win over the Lions could be a huge confidence boost if the first-year expansion team reaches the postseason in September.
“This game is a little more exciting because they are undefeated,” said Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez, who played for Orlando City in 2012. “If we aren’t 100 percent focused, it will be a long night. But if we are able to win, it’s going to give us momentum, especially with so many of our remaining games at home.”
Republic FC has fared well at Hughes Stadium and Bonney Field. After losing its home opener against the Harrisburg City (Pa.) Islanders on April 26 at Hughes, Sacramento has gone 5-0-1 in league matches at home.
Tonight, it will face a talented and experienced team with arguably the league’s most dynamic player, midfielder Kevin Molino, who tops USL Pro in points with 11 goals and seven assists.
Molino, the 2012 USL Pro Player of the Year, passed on offers from European and MLS teams this season to sign a two-year MLS deal with Orlando City for 2015 and 2016. Four other Lions – midfielders Darwin Ceren and Yordany Alvarez and defenders Tyler Turner and Tommy Redding – also have MLS contracts.
In late June, Orlando City signed Brazilian star Kaka, 32, the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year, as its first MLS designated player (not covered by the MLS salary cap). He played this past season for AC Milan but will be on loan through the end of this year with Sao Paulo, his hometown club, before he joins the Lions. Kaka’s AC Milan teammate, Robinho, may soon join him.
Much of Orlando City’s success is credited to Adrian Heath, who has coached the team since it was formed seven years ago in Austin, Texas, before moving to Orlando City to enhance its MLS chances. The two-time USL Pro Coach of the Year had a long playing and coaching career in England.
“He’s been able to create a philosophy and style of play that’s very successful while keeping together a core group of players who are very experienced, including some who have played in MLS,” Lopez said.
Orlando City defender Rob Valentino grew up in Danville, played at USF and was selected 13th in the 2008 MLS SuperDraft by the New England Revolution. But his best days have come the past four years playing for the Lions.
“It’s like a family, a brotherhood here,” said Valentino, the 2011 USL Pro Defender of the Year. “We feel connected, from the players, to the coaches to the front office staff. It’s rare to see that these days where everyone gets along. Credit the owners and the coaching staff, because they set the culture.”
Heath is in Europe, so assistant coach Ian Fuller, a former player for Orlando City, will be in charge tonight as the Lions try to extend their unbeaten streak.
“We’ve worked extremely hard to get to where we are,” Fuller said. “The thing about Adrian is that he’s never satisfied with where we are, and what we’ve done. He wants more, and he demands it every day.”
Republic FC will be without several key players tonight. Granite Bay native Tommy Thompson, on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes, is with the U.S. Men’s National U-20 team for this week’s National Training Center Invitational in Carson.
Injuries have sidelined midfielder George Fochive and defender Alvas Powell, both on loan from the Portland Timbers.
And the short turnaround after losing 2-1 in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, beating Charlotte 1-0 in North Carolina on Monday and arriving back to Sacramento late Tuesday hasn’t helped.
“The travel schedule has been horrific for us,” Preki said. “But we don’t want to make any excuses. It is what it is. We’ve just got to go out there and and see what we have left in the tank.”