SANFORD — It will be the start of a new era for an Orlando City stalwart.
Since being with the Orlando City Soccer Club organization since 2012, the first-ever Orlando City B coach, Anthony Pulis, will kickstart the club’s return to the USL.
And despite the new title to his name, there’s more than meets the eye with Pulis, as he makes his coaching debut on Saturday when OCB hosts the Wilmington Hammerheads in Melbourne.
One of the many tasks the former midfielder will face is juggling the development of players and employing a winning side — two different job descriptions he hopes can run parallel to one another even if they bring their own challenges.
“It’s very difficult,” Pulis said. “It’s been a huge eye-opener over the last eight to nine weeks. At the start of preseason, the MLS team had a number of our guys training and playing with them, and now it’s almost flipped. Now I’m being given guys to come to train and play with us.”
With players from the first team moving up and down throughout the season, OCB’s roster will change on a week-to-week basis, Pulis added.
And thus enters the first challenge before game day. Staple OCB players that have trained all of preseason may not get a start come Saturday because of the first-team players that more than likely will have a starting role over their lower-tier counterparts.
Pulis, however, sees that first challenge as experience that can be gained. Pulis knows that deploying a winning side while making sure younger players solely assigned to OCB will see minutes is a challenge in itself. Additionally, that is a common situation with most clubs that field a reserve team.
“As a coach, I want to win and I want to make that clear,” he added. “We’re playing against independent USL teams that are actually fighting for something. We’re playing against Wilmington this weekend. We’re going to be playing Charleston, Louisville — independent teams that will be fighting for three points week in and week out.
“The players know that. We’re playing in a competitive league, and, [at the same time], trying to get these players to the MLS group. They have to understand.”
It’s worth noting that this Orlando City B squad won’t exactly operate the same way the Lions that roamed the USL from 2011 to 2014 did now that the club has an MLS squad.
“I think it’s a different aspect now,” Pulis added. “This isn’t an independent USL team. We’re an affiliate now to an MLS team, so it’s going to be a slight different feel to it. Yes, we want to win games. Yes, we want to be successful. At the same time, people have to understand that this is about developing players and giving them a platform to push on and hopefully to play for Orlando City and MLS one day.”
Historically, winning has been in the club’s blood, and the club’s MLS side’s head coach Adrian Heath knows it’s something that is consistent throughout the organization. However, what a player puts on the practice field isn’t always transferred to a competitive environment. Heath and Pulis have both heavily emphasized that sentiment this season.
“I’m a firm believer that you only get out of anything what you put in,” Heath said on OCB players striving for a chance to play in MLS one day. The Orlando City coach will be present at OCB’s home-opener on Saturday.
“The bottom line is if we’re there watching and they do well, then they give you somebody to think about. And if they don’t do so well and don’t try as hard we feel as they should, maybe it gives us another reason to leave them out,” Heath concluded.
Looking away from the MLS players that will join the USL team, Pulis praised Tony Rocha and 17-year-old Pierre da Silva. Looking at the USL environment from the last time he was there, it’s not the same, Pulis said.
“The league has changed unbelievably since I played for Orlando there two years ago,” he concluded. “The standard of play is better. There’s obviously more teams [and] better quality players. That’s another thing people have to take into account is this league has taken giant leaps forward in the last year or two since we were there. So it’s only going to make it more difficult for us.”
For fans that can’t make the trip to Melbourne on Saturday to watch OCB’s opener against Wilmington at 7:30 p.m., all USL games will be live-streamed on YouTube.
The 2016 season might see some purple dominance. Pulis suggested former Orlando City USL affiliate Louisville City FC will be the team to beat this season.
“I think in our conference Louisville are going to be the team to beat,” Pulis said. “I go back a long way with James [O’Connor]. He played here for a number of years. I got great respect for him, I think he’s done a fantastic job last year, and since I’m solely focused on the Eastern Conference, I know they’re going to be the team to beat.”
Louisville City, who are managed by former Orlando City player O’Connor, made an impressive run during its inaugural season in 2015, finishing second in the Eastern Conference table before falling short in the conference finals.
Both clubs will meet for the first time on Saturday, April 9 at Louisville’s Slugger Field at 7:30 p.m.
Pulis confirmed with reporters that Lewis Neal will be the Orlando City B captain this season in USL.
“Lewis is going to be our captain,” Pulis said. “[He] was probably the best signing I made. What he brings on the field and most importantly in and around the locker room, he’s been there, he’s done it.”
Considered a legend to the Orlando City fan base, Neal was part of Orlando City’s inaugural USL season in 2011 and played in Orlando’s first year in MLS before officially signing for the club’s reserve team.