[Editor's Note: William Crawford will be rebooting The Mane Land's coverage of Orlando City's youth and development programs. We're very excited to bring him aboard to cover this important area. In these missives we may all "meet" the Lions' next Homegrown Player.]
Mention the words "youth soccer" and the image of orange slices and confused children chasing a ball around a field en masse immediately pops into the minds of most Americans. Not surprising. After all, for many of us, that was our initial exposure to the sport of soccer.
Certainly, it was my first encounter with the beautiful game. A tiny (okay, husky) tyke in the late 1980s, playing in the Virgina youth recreational leagues, I was completely oblivious to the global impact the world's game truly possesses.
Now, while that initial image is a pleasant one and may bring a smile to our faces, so much has changed across the landscape of American soccer in the last couple of decades that I believe there is a real, true understanding of the importance of youth and developmental programs growing across the country. It is why I am so excited to be joining The Mane Land team with the responsibility of covering the youth and academy programs of Orlando City SC.
As a club debuting in Major League Soccer (MLS) this season, after making the jump up from the ranks of USL Pro, Orlando City understands the importance of growing something from a grassroots level and how rewarding the feeling is when that effort pays off.
In essence, that is what these youth programs are. They are a grassroots developmental system that is beneficial for club, country, and community.
For Orlando City, the academy program allows for a controlled system to shape and mold the next wave of athletes into the best and brightest soccer players. Through the academy's coaching staff, the club is able to disseminate the techniques and tactics of the first team into the youth system, highlight those that stand out, and offer MLS Homegrown Player (HGP) contracts to those deserving athletes.
This is highly advantageous, especially to a club situated in the heart of what is widely regarded as a very athletic state.
It is no secret that NCAA programs have long valued Florida as a top state in which to find athletic talent. For Orlando City to have the potential to get that level of athlete into its system and academy early on gives the club a tremendous leg up on other clubs across America.
Take a quick look at the media outlets run by the top Premier League clubs. You know what you will find? References to their youth systems. The major clubs understand that early detection and development of young talent is a vital resource in maintaining club viability.
Orlando City has designs on becoming a big club -- not just in MLS and North America, but globally. Proving that the club can cultivate the local talent will help the Lions bring in talented youngsters from other nations. The recent signings of Colombians Carlos Rivas and Cristian Huigita show that Orlando City is already well on its way to reaching that goal.
The signing of Rivas and Huigita, as well as the recent appointments of Tyler Turner (USA) and Bryan Rochez (Honduras) to their respective countries' U-20 squads, reflects well on the club, even though none of those players came through the academy system. Regardless of national origins, the benefit of participating in such a structured and educational environment from top to bottom helps the reputation of the club as a whole, which in turn assists the team's developmental system and links club and country.
Since the arrival of Jurgen Klinsmann onto the U.S. Men's National Team stage, the spotlight on the U.S. academy programs has grown hotter and brighter. Orlando City has already taken steps to ensure that its program will be one of the finest in the nation.
The variety of youth programs available beyond the academy itself not only serves to widen the recruiting area, increasing the likelihood of scouting out the top prospects, but it also ingratiates the club into the community.
More than just being a fan or a member of a supporters group, Orlando City's youth programs allow the community to become a part of the club itself.
With its recreational leagues, specialty camps, top level academies for boys and girls, and the Little Lions program, Orlando City has established opportunities for children as young as four years old to experience the joy of pulling on an Orlando City jersey and playing the beautiful game.
Whether it stems from acceptance into the academy, participation in the recreational league, or simply watching your child at an Orlando City soccer camp, the connection between club and community is formed. The club becomes integrated into the core of the community and that relationship feeds into all other aspects of club support.
It fuels a more passionate and engaging fan base, which serves to raise the club's profile. That, in turn, provides opportunity for the club to grow and expand, edging closer and closer to the goal of becoming a globally recognized club.
It starts here, in Orlando, though. The youth and academy programs of Orlando City SC truly have the ability to strengthen the foundation of support for the club and provide long term viability and franchise stability.
Youth/Academy programs will be back in full swing in the next few weeks and spring registration for the recreational leagues is now open.
And you can still have an orange slice, if you would like.