KISSIMMEE, Fla. — During his first day of Orlando City preseason training, rookie Daryl Dike kept telling himself the same thing — relax.
He was suffering the typical over-stimulation of any first-year player, the heightened speed of professional play combining with the adrenaline of rookie jitters. So throughout the first day, the same mantra, repeated by himself and his teammates, held him steady — “No, you’re fine. You’re OK. You’re good. Relax.”
“I had to remind myself that everybody is here because they enjoy playing soccer,” Dike said. “That’s one of the best one of the main things [I had to do,] was to just allow myself to relax, have fun and enjoy my time here.”
Focusing on the game made everything easier for Dike, who grew up in a family enamored with soccer. His older brother, Bright, played for the Portland Timbers and the Nigerian national team; his sister Courtney represented Nigeria at the 2015 World Cup.
Visits to his parents’ home typically end with the trio at a local park, kicking a ball around and getting a little too competitive over a made-up competition.
“You walk into our living room, there’s always going to be soccer on,” Dike said. “You walk through our house, there’s always gonna be pictures of everyone in our family playing soccer.”
Standing 6-foot-2 and weighing 220 pounds, Dike makes an impression on the pitch. His physicality is his selling point, providing a hard-to-guard target in the box that is near impossible to muscle off the ball.
Orlando City defender Kamal Miller, who played at Syracuse, noticed the striker when their teams faced off in college. Even though he was just a freshman at Virginia during the match, Dike stood out.
“He’s a special player for sure,” Miller said. “His size, his strength, his physicality, it’s something most teams don’t have on their team. He’s probably one of the biggest and fast forwards in the league, so now it’s just adjusting to the game from the college level.”
The striker’s addition to the roster signals the Lions’ continued focus on scoring more goals. From 2018 to 2019, Orlando City improved its goal differential by 23 goals, but the Lions only netted one more goal and remained the third-lowest scoring team in the Eastern Conference.
When it comes to finding the net, Dike knows his size creates an advantage. He admires Romelu Lukaku, the 6-foot-3, 205 pound Belgian striker who defines the style of physical, hold-up play Dike aspires to play himself. But the young striker also finds he attracts defensive attention due to his build, allowing him to free up teammates for assists.
“I like to open the game up and allow other people to come into the game, whether it be holding the ball up so I can allow the team to push it up or even breaking pressure,” Dike said. “I think that’s probably my biggest strong suit is my physical ability to hold the ball up and let people come forward.”
During his first few days in training, Dike has learned to rely on the three teammates who understand his situation the best — Miller and second-year players Benji Michel and Santiago Patiño.
The trio has remained close during the offseason, keeping in touch on their “Rookie Gang” group chat while training in three separate countries during the offseason. They each enter the year with new goals — Michel particularly hopes they’ll play on the pitch at the same time this season — but with a renewed sense of responsibility as they become leaders for the new rookie class.
Looking back on his first year in MLS, Miller said those rookie nerves can come and go. He felt completely calm ahead of the team’s season opener against New York City FC last season even though it was his first professional game. But at later points in the season, the nerves would return unexpectedly, giving him a bit of a “roller coaster” experience.
“When you’re young, you gain confidence from the people around you,” Miller said. “You really build off that energy. So if we’re not doing well as a team, then it’s hard to be confident as a rookie.”
As they approach their second season, the sophomore trio also continues to look up to forward Chris Mueller, who in turn advised them through their rookie seasons as one of the Lions’ 2018 draft picks.
This progression has created a visible path for players looking to transition from the college level to MLS in Orlando. The Lions field a high number of former NCAA players, a route that has become less popular among many MLS teams that instead seek talent outside the college system.
New coach Óscar Pareja said he believes in the importance of the American college system, pointing to Tesho Akindele — a player he drafted while at FC Dallas — as a success story. Orlando City has offered Dike, Miller and Michel a chance to show they’re talented enough to compete in MLS.
“There’s a lot of good college players that aren’t really given the chance to prove themselves,” Michel said. “They’re very talented, they just need to teach needed to be given a chance, and I think you can see that here with the guys who have come through.”
Unlike last year’s rookie trio, Dike entered the MLS SuperDraft after only two college seasons, but he felt it was the perfect timing. He was fresh off a standout season, scoring 10 goals and adding eight assists as the Cavaliers thundered through a one-loss regular season before falling in penalty kicks in the College Cup final.
At 19, Dike was one of the youngest players selected in this year’s draft. That youth is easily hidden by his imposing frame, but Dike wears an eagerness typical of any rookie as he continues to settle into his new home.
“Coming into any team, you have to know that everyone’s gonna have a role on the team and my job is to find my role and assume my role,” Dike said. “I think throughout the season, I have to make sure that no matter what, I’m getting better and that I’m helping the whole team, not just myself.”