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Rookies bolster roster depth as Orlando City faces deluge of games

Newcomers Benji Michel and Santiago Patiño are making their names known as Orlando City balances roster rotation.

Orlando City forward Santiago Patino (29) celebrates his goal with teammates during the second half at Talen Energy Stadium. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

The marathon is almost over for Orlando City.

Plenty of season still remains for the team, but after Wednesday’s game, the break-neck schedule of the past month will begin to ease up for the Lions. The team has packed eight games into a span of just under 30 days, facing weather delays and travel hurdles along the way.

The team is led by its more weathered veterans — Nani at the head with a team-best eight goals and seven assists entering Wednesday night’s match, and forward Tesho Akindele, close behind with six goals. But the roster rotations have given Orlando’s rookies a chance to shine.

Sunday’s game put that youth on full display, with both goals coming from a play by two rookies — Homegrown player Benji Michel and forward Santiago Patiño.

In the 66th minute, Michel’s full-steam sprint up the right flank forced a hard foul. The subsequent free kick resulted in Dom Dwyer’s equalizing goal. In the 81st minute, Patiño used his first touch of the game to tap in a rebounding ball on a corner kick, giving Orlando City a 2-1 lead.

The rookies’ teammates have noticed the effort that came before the payoff.

“I see them out here putting in the extra work, and it’s great to see that pay off for them,” Akindele said. “They’ve been hardworking, head-down guys and they ask a lot of questions. They’re like sponges of information.”

The role of a rookie who comes off the bench fluctuates from week to week. Sometimes that means getting in extra finishing reps after not playing in a game. Sometimes it means starting on the road against the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Either way, Orlando City coach James O’Connor has emphasized to his team the importance of being ready when a player’s number is called. He said Michel and Patiño represent some of the players most willing to embrace this mentality, remaining alert and in each game even if they spend the majority of it on the sidelines.

“They’re very intentional about trying to listen,” O’Connor said. “With both of those guys, you feel that when you have a conversation there is an understanding and then there’s an intention from them to try to actually implement what you’re speaking about.”

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