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SSFC Spotlight: Benji Michel provides spark for Orlando City and USA U-23s

The versatile attacker is on a development track.

SOCCER: JUL 13 MLS - Columbus Crew SC at Orlando City SC Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Orlando City is playing, national team striker Daryl Dike receives most of the attention, both on and off the field. However, the Major League Soccer club has another American forward quietly working his way into the rotation, contributing solid numbers in a versatile supporting role. With his recently inclusion in the Olympic qualifying squad, Benji Michel has the opportunity to prove his viability as a consistent, versatile option in the attacking core. As his teammate continues to thrive on loan at Barnsley, the dynamic utility player can grab the reins and continue his steady growth, ideally leading to regular inclusion.

Michel was born and raised in Orlando, moving in with his older stepbrother for the purposes of “staying out of trouble” and becoming a more disciplined student. He played for Orlando City in the Development Academy at the age of 17, racking up 25 goals in a single season. At the high school level, the attacker suited up for prep powerhouse Montverde Academy and was the team’s leading scorer. The Eagles were in the midst of a 136-match unbeaten streak and “crowned” the best program in the country for three straight years.

After graduating, Michel headed to the West Coast to attend the University of Portland Pilots, finding immediate success. He was a key member of the Pilots’ program for three years, scoring 31 goals in 53 appearances. A bevy of individual awards followed, including West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year, All-West Region First Team, and United Soccer Coaches All-American Second Team. His goal in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament secured a 1-0 victory over UCLA.

“I knew when I recruited Benji he had a lot of potential we could mold and develop in our system,” said Pilots head coach Nick Carlin-Voigt. “Benji also grew and matured and took many steps forward off the field as a leader this year. He didn’t arrive with many accolades and rankings, but he always brought a strong desire to compete and perform.”

Leaving college early in December of 2018, Orlando City signed the former academy player to a Homegrown contract. Orlando gave him his first start in April; by May, he was a regular contributor. The club focused on a patient holistic development process, providing a safe opportunity to rebound from failure. In his first professional season, Michel scored six goals in 20 total appearances.

After his rookie year, he spent time training with Série A club Athletico Paranaense, honing “on-ball skill and finishing” while “learning the Brazilian style of creative playmaking.” In his second season, Michel once again contributed six goals, this time in 21 total appearances. During an impressive stretch in September, he found the back of the net four times in five matches. As expected, Orlando exercised his contract option for 2021.

A dual-national, Michel received a call-up to the Haitian national team in March of 2019 but declined to participate in the Nations League with Les Grenadiers. He was added to the preliminary 2019 Gold Cup roster, again not named to the final roster. Shortly after, Jason Kreis invited him to a United States U-23 training camp. This past January, the attacker was a member of the annual January Camp and survived the cut in advance of the USMNT’s friendly against Trinidad and Tobago. He described wearing the crest as “a dream come true” and credited fellow Haitian-American Jozy Altidore as a “big brother” who took the younger attacker “under his wing.”

As one of the more experienced players eligible for the competition, Michel was named to the roster for the 2020 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. His first-ever international appearance came in the 1-0 opening victory over Costa Rica, starting on the right wing of the 4-3-3. In the second match, he entered as a substitute in the 69th minute of the 4-0 win against the Dominican Republic. An assist in the 90th minute demonstrated how the national team could benefit from his continued inclusion: the delayed run behind the back line, a driving dribble deep into the box, and the perfect pass to a waiting Djordje Mihailovic.

Michel is primarily a striker but increasingly lines up as a winger, a difficult process of adaptation that is finally starting to produce results. Bringing a distinct energy to the game, he has a keen sense of positioning when working his way into advantageous positions behind the back line to receive the ball. The 23-year-old is a speedy counter-attacker, with the Orlando coaching staff “pushing [him] to develop his game” as a playmaking wide player. While learning new position is “hard,” the process is aided by his extra training sessions and hours of film study. Manager Oscar Pareja notes the young professional is “growing” and learning how to “get the best out of [his explosive]” movement.

Orlando City blog The Mane Land offers measured praise in a breakdown of Michel’s abilities. Considered “a heavily-used rotational piece,” his finishing is described as “superb… as he scored on half of his shots on goal.” His contribution to the build-up is an area for improvement, demonstrated by soft dribbling and chance creation numbers. He “thrived” as an impact sub, continuing his upward trajectory that should continue during the next Major League Soccer season.

“Michel will likely remain a bench option,” writes Christopher Adams for The Mane Land. “He hasn’t yet shown the consistency to be a high-level starter, as he still struggles at times with his first touch and sometimes fades from games. But as a super sub, he’s thrived. He has good pace and goal-scoring instincts, even if some of his technical skills aren’t quite there yet.”

With his club fully focused on development, Michel appears to be on the cusp of a big jump forward next season. Growth as a playmaking wide player will reap benefits for his international future, as manager Gregg Berhalter harbors an appreciation for flexible wingers that “threaten the back line” and “have the pace to get in behind.” While having a delayed start to his career and not scoring in bunches like flashier teammates, his production has been good enough to earn opportunities at both the senior and U-23 levels. The national team was built on former college players entering the professional game at an age that’s later than normal, so perhaps that traditional will continue at least one more time before fully receding into the past.