There is a preconception around that world that Major League Soccer is a "retirement league," a place for former superstars to earn one final paycheck while relaxing in America. While that can sometimes be the case (see Rafael Márquez), more and more MLS teams are making investments in young talents, making this preconception no more than a stereotype.
This preconception has plagued many MLS teams, as fans of European clubs have used it as a reason not to support their local club, regardless of whether it’s true or not. As Orlando City prepares for its entry into MLS, there is no question about the club's commitment to bucking that trend. They’ve put an emphasis on signing young players that played with the club during the team's last year in USL Pro, as well as two players that joined the club for the 2011 inaugural season. This strategy gives fans and casual observers the ability to connect with the players prior to MLS entry, eliminating another reason to dismiss the club.
The club’s first MLS signing was 24-year-old midfield star Kevin Molino, who joined the club for its first season in existence. They followed that by signing U.S. youth internationals Tommy Redding (17) and Tyler Turner (18) from the IMG Academy in Bradenton and Portuguese youth internationals Rafael Ramos and Estrela, both 19, through their relationship with SL Benfica. All in all, Orlando City has 10 players under contract heading into the Expansion Draft, with seven of those 10 at 24 years or younger, and five of those players are still teenagers. As if that isn’t enough, the club is currently linked with 20-year-old starlet Carlos Rivas from Deportivo Cali in Colombia.
Orlando City is also showing its commitment to youth by being one of the few MLS teams with a full pyramid. Starting in 2011, with a merger with the local youth club Florida Soccer Alliance in nearby Sanford, Orlando City has a full academy from U-5 to U-18. They also took a controlling interest in the USL’s Premier Development League side, Central Florida Kraze, who were renamed Orlando City U-23.
The purpose of these acquisitions was to create a structure where Orlando City will be able to cultivate players from the time they learn the game until they turn professional. Club president Phil Rawlins has stated that his goal is to eventually see a large portion of the senior squad from central Florida.
The preconception of MLS as a "retirement league" is something that has plagued the league since its inception. While it may be nothing more than a stereotype, it’s one that must be changed for clubs to gain respect worldwide. Expansion club Orlando City is attempting to do that with a youth movement rivaling any in American soccer. From the academy to the young signings of the senior team, Orlando City is working hard to separate themselves from that label.