Sneak Peek: Lions ready to roar in new den

Fifteen years after abandoning the entire state of Florida, MLS opens yet another new stadium in a land the league once rejected.

Only the Sounders have drawn bigger average crowds than those lured by the Lions in 2015 (32,847) and 2016 (31,324), and with a capacity of 25,500, the Orlando City Stadium should be packed for every game starting Sunday with the home opener against New York City FC that matches up the 2015 expansion teams.
 
Opening day …
Projected XI – Bendik; Toia, Spector, Aja, Giro; Johnson, Higuita, Perez Garcia, Kaka; Barnes, Larin.
 
Head coach Jason Kreis used mostly scrimmages to prepare his team for the season, then dropped a blockbuster move this week by trading Brek Shea to Vancouver in exchange for veteran forward Giles Barnes. He gives Orlando a solid and straightforward prescence that will battle for time with Carlos Rivas and add another option for playmaker Kaka.
 
Barnes, as did most of his new teammates, raved about the playing surface in the new facility. The Lions loved the raucous environment of Camping World Stadium (formerly the Citrus Bowl) for their first two MLS seasons but no matter what the setting, artificial turf isn’t grass.

Orlando City played St. Louis of the USL in a “soft” opening of the new facility last weekend and confidence is high that a sparkling new venue and smooth surface will suit the team’s style.

“The grass,” said striker Cyle Larin when asked what element he liked best. “It is so important. And it was very important to get used to it tonight, getting the feel for the width of the field, the length, and knowing where you are. I think we showed today that we fit in well on this field.

“Yes, it’s a very nice stadium. I have played in a lot of stadiums in this league now but I think this is now the best in the league. But, for me, it’s the grass – it is just so nice to play on.”

Who fills the left-sided hole vacated by Shea is destined to be a fascinating early-season question, along with what the attack will look like without Kevin Molino. He scored 11 goals and logged eight assists yet was traded to Minnesota United and reunited with former Lions' head coach Adrian Heath. Matias Perez Garcia is right-footed but could be deployed on the “off” wing, and Will Johnson usually played a wide slot for Kreis at Real Salt Lake. Antonio Nocerino, former teammate of Kaka at AC Milan, hasn’t played much in MLS and might get some time as Kreis moves around his midfield pieces.

But the back line is where the Mane Men must be meaner. Each of three defensive additions is significant, especially that of sometime-U.S. international Jonathan Spector, who can be the defensive anchor the freewheeling Lions have often lacked. Veteran Aurelien Collin couldn’t handle the job under Heath and was traded to the Red Bulls last April. Despite a string of good outings by Jose Aja, OCSC conceded a league-most 60 goals.

Heath fell victim to a power struggle between him and the team’s Brazilian contingent. Kreis posted a 5-6-3 record after taking over and came up just a point short of the playoffs. That’s a narrow margin but most of the Eastern teams look better than they did in 2016 and new hotshot Atlanta United will be hard to beat on its good days.

Larin, scorer of 31 goals in his first two pro seasons, and Kaka are among the top performers at their respective positions. Kreis needs a few more players to enter that class if the Lions are to christen their new home in the proper manner.

Who’s in …
GOALKEEPERS: Josh Saunders (New York City, Trade). DEFENDERS: Victor "PC" Giro (Tampa Bay Rowdies, NASL Signing), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City/ENG, Transfer), Danny Toia (Montreal Impact, Trade via Atlanta United). MIDFIELDERS: Pierre Da Silva (Orlando B, USL Signing), Will Johnson (Toronto FC, MLS Free Agent).  Giles Barnes (Vancouver Whitecaps, Trade).

Who’s out …
GOALKEEPERS: Patrick McLain (Minnesota United, Trade). DEFENDERS: Mikey Ambrose (Atlanta United, Expansion Draft), Luke Boden (Tampa Bay Rowdies, Free Agent), Brek Shea (Vancouver Whitecaps, Trade), Tyler Turner. MIDFIELDERS: Harrison Heath (Atlanta United, Trade), Kevin Molino (Minnesota United, Trade), Pedro Ribeiro. FORWARDS: Julio Baptista.
 
First five games …
March 5 -- New York City FC.
March 11 –- at New England Revolution.
March 18 -– Philadelphia Union.
April 1 -- at Columbus Crew.
April 9 -- NY Red Bulls.
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