By Aaron Tomich/NPSL.com
The 2021 NPSL season will be one to remember for soccer supporters, players, and casual fans in the greater Orlando region.
New arrivals of Orlando soccer legends to Central Florida Panthers SC has sparked an excitement within the community that is unrivaled by years past.
Announced in the past few months, the club has signed MLS icon and Canadian international midfielder Will Johnson to a player-mentor contract. Additionally, former Orlando City and English top-flight player Lewis Neal joins the Panthers as a part-time assistant coach.
“After playing for Orlando City and just when COVID-19 hit, I decided that my kids were happy here and that we were going to make central Florida our home,” said Johnson. “We’ve been local here for about four years now, which is incredible because as a professional athlete, you’re always on the road, you’re usually moving around.”
Similarly, Neal has found central Florida to be home, too. With his professional playing career ending with Orlando City’s B team, he has remained with his family and as fate would have it, he eventually reconnected with Panthers Head Coach Tom Traxler.
“Tom and I go back a number of years now,” said Neal. “We’ve gained a pretty close friendship while being at Orlando City for many years and then indoors with the [Orlando] SeaWolves. I think the opportunity to help in a coaching position with the Panthers really intrigued me, especially the concept of helping out the local community and college players so they can better showcase themselves.”
“Even on a limited basis, we are honored Lewis will be taking time out of his busy schedule to lend his talents to the Panthers and we welcome him with open arms,” said Central Florida Panthers Co-Founder and Vice President Giovanni Taliaferro.
A resounding theme arose after talking with both Johnson and Neal about their newest ventures with the Panthers this year: a strong commitment to the development of young soccer players through mentorship and on-the-pitch leadership.
Both gentlemen are veteran midfielders with playing styles that emphasize meticulous control of the ball, purposeful organization of their fellow teammates’ positions, and an overall intelligence of the game itself so as to “be a safe place on the field during the run of game,” said Johnson.
Johnson will see action on the field, and is excited to use his vast amount of professional experience to help shape the form of his side. He hopes to lead by example and push his younger teammates towards excellence day-by-day.
“Any time a team can add a person like Will Johnson to their roster they are fortunate,” said Panthers Head Coach Tom Traxler. “Our younger players are going to benefit tremendously from his experience. Will is a leader on the field and off. This is another historic day for the Central Florida Panthers.”
He wants to pass-on down the immense value that is being a good teammate; something that coaches and general managers themselves desire in a player. He knows, through his own career, that with youth comes continual growth in maturity, both physically and mentally.
“I also want to take away some of the naive impressions that young players have when it comes to being a professional soccer player,” said Johnson. “It’s not all fun and games. It’s a sacrifice and a lifestyle that can come with really difficult lessons.”
From the sideline, Neal wants his impact with the Panthers to be a grounded beacon that helps these players better understand the true nature of professional sport. One of his most important lessons is consistency.
“A big part of development is your training mentality and your habits,” said Neal. “We always talk about ‘train as you want to play’, and you can’t just turn it on and off… you have to go out there each day and commit yourself to being the best that you can be.”
“Lewis and I have become good friends over the years working together on broadcasts with Orlando City as well as the Orlando Seawolves,” said Traxler. “Lewis is a top class man and professional. Having him in this journey with us will benefit our players and organization.”
With that consistency comes confidence, says Neal. The more confidence that you have from your training, your technical skills, and the support of your teammates, the better you will begin to play.
The better the individuals begin to play, the greater the chances are that the team wins. And the more times you win, the more you get noticed, says Johnson. “The teams, seasons and what I remember the most are the ones you won [games] with.”
The goal at Central Florida Panthers SC seems clear for Johnson and Neal: bringing their veteran skills to the club to develop young men into great people and masters at the sport, while chasing aspirations of trophies and overall career success.
Taliaferro is beyond appreciative of both men’s selfless commitment to the club, having offered up their vast knowledge and experience to further the Panthers’ mission of “providing professional development opportunities for players.” He knows that having Lewis and Neal join his club will strengthen the team and the community as a whole.
One could describe it as “paying it forward”. At Central Florida Panthers SC, that concept is very prevalent. From veteran players contributing in unique ways to the game, to offering a number of student-interns – from the Dan Patrick School of Broadcasting at Full Sail University – positions to gain real-world sporting experiences, Taliaferro, Lewis, and Neal each embrace that desire of molding the next generation and personal, upward growth.
“It’s all about the team and getting the team and our players to the next level,” said Johnson about his role with the Panthers in 2021. “It’s so much less about me at this point. I just want to be a part of it and you win as a team, not as an individual.”
Photo Credit: Nigel Worrall