SANFORD, Fla. — Five Orlando City players earned national team call-ups during the past week, an accomplishment coach James O’Connor said reflects the growth of the Lions throughout this season.
Tesho Akindele, Will Johnson and Kamal Miller were called up by the Canadian national team, while Carlos Ascues was selected by the Peruvian national team and Sebás Mendez was called up to the Ecuador national team.
At the start of the season, Mendez and Johnson were the only Orlando City players regularly earning consistent national team recognition. O’Connor said the change reflects how the players have developed in Orlando.
“It’s a testament of us as a club,” O’Connor said. “To have players that throughout the course of the year have impressed their national coach to be called up is a testament to the work that’s been done here.”
For several players, the news came as a surprise after several years of absence from their national team rosters. When Ascues first received his call-up, he thought it was a prank call and the Peruvian head coach had to assure him the invitation was legitimate.
The moment offered a sunny crack breaking up his typically stoic demeanor.
“It’s been three years since I’ve called up, so I was very surprised but very happy,” Ascues said. “It’s very important because it shows that this is a great club that gives us the opportunity to make it to the national teams.”
Tesho Akindele faced a similar situation, earning his first call-up in almost two years for the Canadian national team. For Akindele, this comes near the end of the best club season of his career, scoring nine goals to tie with Nani as Orlando City’s leading scorer.
Akindele said that the call-up felt particularly hard-fought due to the current boom in attacking talent on the Canadian national team.
For the Orlando City players, the opportunity to report for national team duty was bittersweet. The five players will miss the team’s home match against LAFC, a major opportunity for the Lions to prove themselves against the league’s top club.
Los Angeles will will play without starters Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, Brian Rodriguez and Walker Zimmerman, who have been called up to their national teams.
Still, the game was marked on the calendar as one of the biggest challenges of the season, and Akindele said it was a hard decision for the players to report to camp.
“It definitely does suck to miss such a big game at home,” Akindele said. “It’s a difficult choice, but for somebody like me, I hadn’t been in the national team for almost two years. It’s not like I can turn down the call-up. I have to take advantage of this.”
Midfielder Cristian Higuita completed a full-speed set of sprints in training today, marking another step towards his return to the field. Higuita has been back in full-contact training with the Lions for several weeks now after suffering a hamstring injury at the start of June.
Although Higuita was removed from the club’s injury report, O’Connor said the Lions are monitoring his readiness after sitting out 13 MLS games.
“We’re trying to get him where we feel that he’s comfortable,” O’Connor said. “He’s at a place now where we feel he’s a potential for game ready, but when you’ve been out for such a long time, you need to be mindful in how you monitor his load.”
Defenders Ruan and João Moutinho both continue to recover from hamstring injuries as well, remaining on the sidelines for individual work throughout training this week.