USL PRO Feature
Friday, February 28, 2014
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – As Orlando City enters its final season in USL PRO, there remain expectations to be met.
Those expectations are not only for the team, which will try to defend its title and claim its third championship in four seasons, but also for the players who hope to join the club as it joins MLS in 2015.
One of those players is Rob Valentino, who arguably has been the Lions’ most consistent performer in his three seasons with the club. An All-League First Team selection all three years, the only Lions player to accomplish the feat, Valentino has been a standout on the club’s back line and a leader in the locker room.
Despite all of the accolades he has accumulated, however, it’s not yet guaranteed that the former New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids player will be joining Orlando City in MLS. Valentino, however, is aiming to make Coach Adrian Heath’s decision as easy as possible.
“I think I need more consistency and better decision-making with the ball and without the ball,” Valentino said recently. “We’ve talked in the offseason with Adrian [Heath] and Ian [Fuller] about what I need to do to get myself there. As far as the season before, two seasons before, they thought I was a lot better than I was last year, so I need to get back to doing what I’m in the team for, and as long as I’m doing that I think I’ll get a fair shot.
“At the end of the day it’s nothing I can control, so I’ll just work my butt off and they make the decision. I’ll try to make it easy for them, though.”
For Heath, the season offers a balancing act of putting the best available team on the field while also offering the opportunity for players who could join the Lions in MLS the chance to impress. As has already been seen this preseason, with the departure of fan-favorite Jamie Watson, there will be tough decisions to be made at the end of the year. Heath, though, appreciates the growth he has seen in Valentino’s game during his time with the club.
“I think so, and I think he also understands the role as the captain for us, and he understands the system that we play, and he’s a very important part,” Heath said. “I think his quality on the ball has improved; I think we’ve given him a lot of confidence to play around the back and come and play through midfield, he’s been an incredible player for us over the last three years and hopefully he has a great season this year and goes with us next year.”
Valentino himself is quick to credit Heath and his coaching staff, and also the players that he has played alongside, for giving him the opportunity to shine. After his spells with the Revolution and Rapids saw little opportunity for competitive action, Valentino has made 65 appearances in USL PRO for the Lions, something to which he credits his development as a player.
“I’m just more mature now,” Valentino said. “I’m more seasoned; I’ve played more games; the experience I’ve gotten has been incredible. I’ve gotten to play week-in and week-out and I didn’t get that when I was in New England or when I was in Colorado. I didn’t play anything the first two years and that was terrible - it was an awful feeling - and I wasn’t developing as a player, so to come down here and get games has been very important for me as a player, so that’s really what it was, getting the games and getting to play.”
As with a number of players Valentino has been embraced by the club’s passionate supporters. For his part, the native of Illinois has come to think of Orlando as his home.
“I found myself calling this place home a lot and calling myself part of this family, and I think we’ve really established something great here,” he said. “It’s just been something really special to me. I don’t know if I would have had opportunities in MLS after the past couple of years here, but I’ve never really wanted to go anywhere.
“This place means a lot to me and to be able to go and fight for my goal - since day one when they said they wanted to go to MLS - my goal was to make my debut with them in MLS, and I hope I can make that dream come true.”
If that dream is to be realized, Heath is looking for Valentino to maintain the consistency he has shown in the past three seasons.
“He’s got a level and he’s been very, very consistent the last three years,” Heath said. “He has to maintain that now and obviously we have to see where we are this time next year, but fingers crossed he’ll have a great year and he’ll be with us next year.”
Should Valentino achieve the consistency both he and Heath are looking for, the chances are not only will Valentino be joining the Lions in MLS, but he will also help the club achieve its goals in its final USL PRO season.
“It’s our last season in USL PRO so I think we’ve all said we really want to leave a stamp on this league,” Valentino said. “The league’s been great to us - it’s gotten better every single year - and I really want to leave a lasting impression on this league, go out three out of four years having won championships. That’s what I’d really like to do.”