Molino's return brightens the outlook in Orlando

By Ridge Mahoney

What’s the best storyline attached to Orlando City’s visit to Yankee Stadium for a Friday night battle with its 2015 expansion partner, New York City FC?

There are some good ones, as listed below. Yet perhaps the most compelling will be the next game played by attacker Kevin Molino, a two-time USL Player of the Year sidelined just seven games into his MLS career by a torn ACL.

He went 77 minutes in the season opener and last week against Chicago went the full 90 for the first time in a competitive match since last April. He slipped a great pass that Cyle Larin converted for OCSC’s goal in the 1-1 tie and with another slick ball set up a chance that the 2015 Rookie of the Year banged off the near post. His exuberance produced five fouls in addition to that assist yet the skill and energy he brings to the attack confirm what head coach Adrian Heath said about him during preseason.

“You can just see the difference he makes for us,” said Heath. “He just gives us some composure and quality in the final third that -- no disrespect to anybody else -- people don’t give us. He’s a real popular member of the group and to get him back and to get him in the team would be huge for everybody.”

Molino was one of the few players retained when OCSC moved up from the USL to MLS and after nine months on the shelf, he’s getting back to the scintillating form he often displayed in the lower division.

“It's the beautiful game and it’s something you want to enjoy and express the way you feel about the game,” said the native of Carenage, Trinidad & Tobago, who came to Orlando five years ago at 20. “I always do that: try my best to enjoy the game and express myself and not dwell too much on my surgery.”

Though the Lions brought in only five new players during the offseason, it is a team very much in flux. Molino lined up on the right wing in the opener and switched the left side against the Fire to fill in for Brek Shea, who dropped to left back. Slotted in between them in his MLS debut was Italian midfielder Antonio Nocerino, who lasted 63 minutes and figures to start again Friday.

Nocerino has yet to play a competitive MLS match with his former AC Milan teammate Kaka, who has missed the first two games with a thigh injury that has knocked him off Brazil’s roster for its upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Other midfield pieces to be incorporated are Cristian Higuita, who sat out a suspension in the opener and started against Chicago, and Darwin Ceren, named the team’s Player of the Year in 2015 after starting 25 of his 26 appearances and notching two goals and two assists as midfield linchpin.

Ceren signed a new two-year contract in January but started the new season poorly by being sent off for a foul on RSL midfielder Javier Morales just before halftime of the opener. His return adds another element as Heath plans for the former expansion teams’ first meeting of 2016. At least one of his players appears already close to midseason form.

On his way to the Rookie of the Year award, Larin nailed a hat trick at Yankee Stadium that certainly secured him a few votes. So far this season he’s mocked fears of a sophomore slump by scoring a goal in each of the Lions’ first two games.

He scored against Chicago by controlling a ball from Molino, maneuvering past a few opponents, and crashing a shot into the top corner as two other foes closed in. Last year, he smashed the previous rookie record of 11 goals by bagging 17 in 2015 and so far is defying forecasts of a sophomore slump.

Larin will be the focus of opposing defenses this season and along with keeping a tight guard on him, opponents have also the midfield service of Nocerino and Kaka to fear. The random attacking element will be Molino; if he’s finding space and connecting with his talented attacking partners, the Lions will be very hard to contain, especially at the Citrus Bowl, where combined crowds of nearly 90,000 watched the first two matches of the 2016 season. 

“He’s running off pure excitement,” said Shea in preseason. “He’s just ecstatic to be out there and he was out for so long, it’s great to have him back. He’s a great player and as soon as he comes into the game, he changes the game. I wouldn’t want to play against him.”

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