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By Paul Danzer/Portland Tribune/Former Portland Pilots star has scored a game-winner and played a significant role for Lions

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Benji Michel (19) of Orlando City battles for a ball in the air on Thursday night against the Portland Timbers.On the first day of his recruiting visit to the University of Portland, Benji Michel attended a Timbers match at Providence Park.

He remembers Pilots coach Nick Carlin-Voigt telling him: "One day you'll be playing on this field."

As a high school senior from Orlando visiting Portland for the first time, Michel didn't really believe it.

But as a MLS rookie, he's making believers of the Orlando City management folks who signed him to his first professional contract. And Thursday he spent 90 minutes helping the Lions earn a 1-1 draw with the Timbers at Providence Park.

"It was a really amazing experience," Michel said after his eighth MLS appearance and fourth start of the season.

Signed as a Homegrown Player after his junior season with the Pilots, the Orlando native scored his first MLS goal last Saturday, the winner late in a home game against Columbus.

"It was just an amazing feeling to score a game-winner in front of the home crowd and my parents and friends. It's a moment I've been dreaming of ever since I was younger," Michel said.

It was his second professional goal. His first also was a game-winner, a rebound finish for a U.S. Open Cup round-of-16 victory.

The goals are nice, of course. It's how attackers earn their money. But the shift from playing on The Bluff a year ago to learning the professional game has been a challenge.

"Being a professional, everything is at a high level. It's a lot to take in, but it's something that everyone wants to be, and now that I'm here it just feels amazing," Michel said. "In the beginning, it was very difficult. I was new to the team and had to learn to adapt and get a feel for the players and prove to my teammates and coaches that I'm able to play and gain their trust."

Orlando City coach James O'Connor noted that the club is committed to giving its young players a chance. Santiago Patino, who scored the Orlando City goal on Thursday, is an Orlando native who was drafted in January with the No. 3 pick out of Florida International.

O'Connor said Michel has been open to learning.

"His attitude has been excellent. He's very open. He wants to be coached. I think it's tough for guys that come from college and come straight into our environment," O'Connor said. "In the first half of the season, we've been intentionally trying to manage the (work) load and manage the minutes. But he's very open, a very coachable young man, and we've been pleased."

Michel was pleased to reconnect to Portland teammates and pals over lunch while in town.

"I tried not to get distracted. At the end of the day, it's still a business trip. But it was great to see them," he said.

It was the second trip to the Northwest as a pro for Michel, who made his first MLS start and played 90 minutes on May 15 at Seattle's CenturyLink Field.

"I'm not going to lie. I was really nervous," Michel said of the Seattle match. "But as the game went on I started to develop my confidence and it was just a regular game."

He looked comfortable on Thursday at Providence Park, though Orlando City played a defensive game that limited him to 33 touches. He earned three free kicks for his team in battles with Timbers center back Larrys Mabiala and did the required back-tracking to offer support as Orlando City crowded its defensive third.

Michel was in position to perhaps score another winner from a late free kick, but Portland's Zarek Valentin rose to head the ball away for one of the visitors' three corner kicks.

The biggest adjustment from college soccer to MLS is learning different ways to attack, Michel said.

At Portland, Michel had 31 goals and eight assists in three seasons. He scored 12 game-winning goals. He scored 11 goals as a junior last fall, a number that likely would have been higher if not for an ankle injury.

"In college, I was able to bully past people or run past people, but here in the pros you have to think. You can't just run because there's guys just as fast and just as strong, so you've got to find little things to separate yourself," Michel said.

O'Connor said reading the game is an area of emphasis for Michel, and lauded his learning curve playing both on the wing, as he did on Thursday, and as a central striker.

"He's been very good," O'Connor said. "He's got explosive pace, and he can finish. The biggest coaching point we try to make to Benji is enforcing spacial awareness, so if the defender's tight there's space in behind. If he stands off you, mix it up. Don't be predictable. He's done a good job of that."

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@pauldanzer


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