By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday, March 6, 2016
BRADENTON, Fla. – He’s back where it all began, and Johnny Mendoza couldn’t be happier.
“When I signed the contract I couldn’t believe I was going back home,” the Orlando City B midfielder said recently. “It’s a great feeling just to [be back with] my family, and my other family here in this great organization. It’s unbelievable.”
A native of Colombia, Mendoza and his family made Orlando their home when they moved to the United States. The precocious player quickly made an impact in the local soccer scene, playing for the side that would become Orlando City U23 – the Central Florida Kraze – in the PDL and earning All-League honors in 2011.
Those performances, combined with a strong college career at Stetson, saw him turn professional with the Lions in 2013, where he made 20 appearances for the club. As Orlando began to build its squad for its move to Major League Soccer, though, Mendoza was not part of the plan.
In a way, though, his move to the Rochester Rhinos proved a blessing in disguise. Mendoza’s high-energy style was an ideal fit as Bob Lilley returned to rebuild the club after it had missed the playoffs for the first time in club history in 2013.
“It was great to work with Bob Lilley,” Mendoza said. “He taught me things that I didn’t know, and he helped me grow up.”
Mendoza made more than 50 appearances over two seasons for the Rhinos, and was an integral part of the side that claimed the club’s first league championship in more than a decade. With three goals and two assists, Mendoza appeared in every regular-season contest, and started each of the club’s three playoff games, to help the Rhinos record a record-setting season.
“The guys were great. Their dedication was good. It was just unbelievable with all the players,” Mendoza said of the championship. “It was a great experience, and a memory that’s always going to stay with me. The whole team, it was an unbelievable season.”
With the establishment of Orlando City B last year, though, the door opened for the 26-year-old to return home. Alongside players like Lewis Neal, Mendoza will be one of the experienced veterans expected to set the example as the Lions’ younger players make their way into the professional ranks.
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“They have the quality to be here, and there’s a reason that they’re here. They’re ready to play in the USL, so we’re just getting ready for the season,” Mendoza said. “They’re great players. Now we have to come together as a team and perform on the field.”
With the expectations of the Lions’ previous stint in the USL setting a high bar for success, Mendoza is ready to see the reception OCB gets as it takes to the field for the first time.“The fans are amazing. The fan base that’s in Orlando and now that’s going to be in Brevard, I’ve heard great things about the fans there,” he said. “The first team had a preseason game there, at the field we’re going to play at, and I heard great things about it, so I think it’s going to be great to step onto the field and play in front of the fans.”