The Moment: Under the watchful eyes of Europe, Cyle Larin's stock keeps rising
It was a weekend of brilliant braces, four in all across Major League Soccer. All due respect to Josef Martinez, Maxi Urruti and Diego Valeri, but Cyle Larin’s performance was the one that provided the boldest statement in Week 3.
Larin’s two goals delivered a 2-1 win for Orlando City over the visiting Philadelphia Union. His winner on a feed from Matias Perez Garcia's slicing through ball got the blood pumping, and it was the moment that mattered most.
Larin, as in Orlando City's opening-day victory over New York City FC, had provided a first-half lead, but Philly pulled even through C.J. Sapong's header seven minutes into the second half.
The Lions needed expert on-their-heels defending to hold on two weeks earlier, and they needed it again on Saturday. They found chances to go ahead but were wanting until Antonio Nocerino took a square ball from Jose Aja approaching the midfield stripe and saw Rivas about 20 yards ahead. That’s when Larin provided another stroke of brilliance.
The big picture
Orlando City needs Larin scoring goals to be successful, and that isn't exactly an option; it's a must. There’s a huge buzz around the club thanks to its gleaming new stadium is a big hit, and there's only so much patience after disappointing campaigns in years one and two. Jason Kreis has been entrusted to build a winner, given the means to do so, and results are expected. Right now.
That's a tall task: It takes time to put pieces in place and bind them together, and the Lions this season have trotted out a new formation, overhauled the backline, and are depending on new partnerships in attack to generate offense. However it comes together, it generally leads to the same conclusion: Larin putting the ball into the net.
Canada's “Silent Giant” scored a rookie-record 17 goals as the No. 1 draft pick in 2015, netted 14 more last year and following Kevin Molino's departure to Minnesota, Larin is kind of the sole goal-getter on the roster. Or at least when Kaká isn't around, which is the case now after his opening-day injury.
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The rest of the roster combined scored 33 goals in that same timespan, 18 of which came from Kaka. And so Larin's hot start isn’t just immensely encouraging -- it’s essential. It shows in the standings, with Orlando sitting joint-top of the East with a game in hand.
Scoring wasn't a problem last year for the Lions, who were shut out only six times. But Larin & Co. too often have had to outscore foes to claim points. They've conceded at least two goals in 38 of 70 MLS games; they failed to win in 11 matches last year in which they tallied twice.
Kreis' most important offseason work was establishing stiffer defensive play, already showing improvements with the additions of Spector as the backline anchor, left back Donny Toia, and Swiss-English right back Scott Sutter. And the shift to the 4-4-2 is working. Rivas is proving a terrific partner to open up space for Larin, and he has assisted two of the three goals.
Larin strives to avoid talking about himself, but he said as preseason kicked off that his “personal target” was to “score more goals than I did last year and the year before.” He's on pace for 51 -- as if that were actually doable -- but even half of that would be golden.
He's the fittest he's been, after intense offseason work in Florida, and his understanding of the game and how he can impact things beyond scoring is growing rapidly. Kreis, MLS' first 100-goal man, is working with Larin on his movement, his runs into the box, and his finishing, encouraging the big forward to shoot more. Larin has worked hard on becoming a better two-way player and has been very good defensively in the first two outings.
Larin, just 21, appears to be starting to grasp just how good he could be.
“I think Cyle's [goalscoring] instincts have been fantastic from day one in this league. I would say he's one of the most dangerous players in the penalty box,” Kreis said after beating the Union. “But it's the other stuff that's really growing in his game, and we saw it tonight. He put in a really solid shift for us defensively. He put defenders under pressure, and he's going to need to continue to do that and increase his volume for that work.”
Javier “Chicharito” is widely accepted as the best North American striker, but there’s a compelling argument to be made that it’s actually Larin, who has made no secret of his ambition play in Europe.
Kaká in January proclaimed that Larin “can play in a big team in Europe,” and there's been reported interest in the past year from Lazio, Benfica, Celtic, PSV, Molde and Lech Poznan -- and Corinthians in Brazil, too.
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“I've always wanted to play in Europe. Either it's now or it's later,” Larin said before the season began. “I think when the time is right, I'll go. I mean everyone wants to play in the English Premier League or La Liga, the best players are there. Or the other great teams in Europe or the European Champions League.
“One day I'll be there. I have dreams to play there. When the time's right.”
Might that time be this summer? It's something Orlando City must consider, with his contract set to expire at year's end. He could draw a transfer fee of $5 million, more if he stays in this form, and the other options are let him go for nothing or sign him to a big-money deal.
All three DP slots are filled -- Kaká, Rivas and Barnes -- but the club can use TAM to buy somebody down. If Larin, who last season made $177,000 in guaranteed compensation, is willing to stick around another couple of years, that's the way to go. If he wants to leave now, Orlando City is going to be left with a lot to figure out.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.