United's Lewis Neal has found a home on this side of Atlantic

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Sports,D.C. United,Craig Stouffer

Englishman is making an impact with United

While many Major League Soccer players dream of a move to England, the reverse is more rare.

But D.C. United midfielder Lewis Neal doesn't fit the usual mold. After bouncing around the lower tiers of the English game for most of his career, the 31-year-old Leicester native has begun to carve out a place for himself in America.

Proving to be both versatile and valuable, Neal made his fifth start in United's 1-0 victory at Philadelphia, one game after scoring his first MLS goal in a 2-1 win over New England.

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"A lot of people tell me I'm not a typical English player," Neal said. "Until one or two people told me out here, I hadn't really thought of that. Whatever, I'm enjoying it, and getting to the playoffs is the most important thing right now."

Phil Rawlins helped persuade Neal to move to this side of the Atlantic. He first got to know Neal when the two were at Stoke City, where Rawlins was the director and Neal a teenaged academy player.

Later, in his current role as the part owner and president of Orlando City Soccer Club, Rawlins was uniquely positioned to see where Neal might find a better fit. The plan was to find an MLS team, but when it didn't work out initially, Neal instead helped Orlando City win the 2011 USL Pro Championship.

"I don't think the soccer in the lower leagues in the UK really suited him because he's a ball player, a touch player," Rawlins said. "I've always taken a keen interest in his career, and when we got the opportunity to bring him over to Orlando, we jumped at it."

Neal has had to be patient since joining D.C. United (14-10-5), but after his first minutes as an emergency left back, he's played wide midfield and more recently in a central role after Dwayne De Rosario suffered a season-ending injury.

"Maybe they didn't think they'd use me as much as they have done," Neal said. "In my eyes, it's still not enough. You want more all the time."

Neal's first American club also might one day be his competition. With infrastructure, coaching, development, corporate backing and a desirable geographic location, it may not be if but when Rawlins has Orlando City positioned to join MLS. His biggest remaining obstacle is a familiar one for D.C. United: a soccer-specific stadium.

"I do feel that within the next six months we'll have a solution that we can outline and go back to [MLS] with," Rawlins said. "I think it's one they'll be very happy with."

cstouffer@washingtonexaminer.com

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