SANFORD, Fla. — Rookie seasons can be hard to predict. Santiago Patiño has learned to embrace constant changes during his first season with Orlando City.
His minutes have been scattered and intermittent, earning a start in his first month of play followed by long stretches of waiting on the bench. Throughout the season, however, the forward has made the most of his time, even if that means clean-up minutes at the end of road games.
Patiño scored his first goal as an 81st minute sub on the road in Philadelphia, rocketing in a shot with his first touch of the game. Since then, the point has been clear — whether he’s a starter, a substitute or on the bench, Patiño is devoted to trying to help the Lions win during his rookie season.
“It’s been amazing, honestly,” fellow rookie Benji Michel said. “We’re always supporting each other, no matter who plays or who starts. We try to do the most to make each other feel happy and comfortable and ready for whatever happens.”
During a year full of career milestones for Patiño, perhaps the best came last month when he was called up to the Colombian U-23 national team for the first time.
Patiño spent half of his life in Colombia, moving to Florida with his mother when he was 11 years old. It was where he first fell in love with soccer, and Patiño has visited several times a year since moving to Florida, always staying close to his family.
Joining the Colombian national team was always an aspiration for Patiño. Although he understood the weight of the call-up from the first phone call, it truly hit him when he saw his uncle wearing his Colombian jersey for the first time.
“Right away, when the coach asked if I would like to be part of the team, I told him of course, that’s my dream,” Patiño said. “It was something that as a child I dreamed of. It was something that always inspired me.”
The five-day camp — referred to as a ciclo — was a grueling test for Patiño, who was the only player coming from outside Colombia to train with the team. But Patiño felt he slotted into the team easily, returning home focused on earning a place with the team for the Olympic year — and, he joked, feeling stuffed from five days of “eating good” with his family.
As he continues to work his way into the starting rotation for Orlando City, Patiño is still most comfortable with Michel, who has sat by him on an Orlando City team bus for almost a decade now.
They were busmates for the first time during the academy’s first away game in Atlanta, spending the entire ride joking and singing along to songs with their teammates. Ever since, Michel’s and Patiño’s paths have continued to run parallel to one another.
Even when the pair split up for college — Patiño to FIU and Michel to Portland — the separation only lasted three years, when they became opponents for the first time in the Premier Development League. Michel played for the Portland Timbers team, and Patiño ended up moving cross country to play for the rival Seattle Sounders. The Orlando natives clashed in several matches between the two teams, eagerly embracing the chance to test each other on the field and catch up off of it.
Michel signed a Homegrown contract with Orlando City, but paperwork issues prevented Patiño from taking the same path.
In the weeks leading up to the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, Michel heard Orlando City was expected to pick Patiño early. When Patiño was selected with the No. 3 pick — the highest ever from FIU — Michel immediately sent his once-again teammate a text, telling him he couldn’t wait to get back together on the field.
For both players, the chance to play with an old teammate was a relief among the stress and pressure of an MLS rookie season.
“It was good just to have that familiar face,” Michel said. “We both understand what it takes and what we have to do and how hard we have to grind to prove ourselves to the team and the coaches. It’s been special to do it all together.”
Michel and Patiño linked up quickly with fellow rookie Kamal Miller at the start of the season. All three bring something a little different to the team dynamic. Michel has his signature bright smile, Kamal is talkative with all of his teammates and Patiño rounds them, the soft-spoken final piece of the trio.
Patiño might be quiet off the field, but a flip switches when he takes the pitch. He’s not the most vocal player, but his movement is loud, aggressive. It’s a style that stands out in the Orlando City attack, offering muscle and ruthless finishing to complement other players’ speed and finesse. Michel said he’s improved his finishing by watching Patiño’s touches, which offer clean technique each time he strikes the ball.
For Chris Mueller, who was in the rookie’s boots last season, the key is to encourage each of the young players to identify and grow their own personal brand of play.
“Something we do here is we try to make sure they’re not trying to be anyone else but themselves,” Mueller said. “They need to just be themselves and show their personality and not be nervous around the old guys. We’ve tried to make that environment comfortable and you can see it because the young guys play with so much personality.”
Although Patiño hasn’t seen the field as often as Miller, he approaches each day of training the same, whether he expects to start or not.
In situations when the roster is thinned — such as next week against LAFC, when Orlando City will lose several players to national team duty — he knows that he needs to be ready for his name to be called.
“Right now, I’m just focused on what’s next,” Patiño said. “Today, I’m just focused on having a good training, working my body hard and getting ready for our game. I take it day by day and I know good things will come with time.”