This past Thursday, Orlando City SC participated in its first ever MLS SuperDraft. Of the three players drafted by the Lions, Orlando selected two Generation Adidas (GA) players in No.1 overall pick Cyle Larin and second-round pick Conor Donovan.
The 2015 GA class only had five players in total, comprising the smallest class in the program's history. This small draft class raises concerns about the program's viability for the future. However, the choice by Orlando to tie up 40% of the GA class in this draft highlights Orlando's commitment and dedication to the program's vision, and raises the question that If other clubs join Orlando, can the GA be saved?
Generation Adidas was originally conceived of in 1997 as a project to develop young talent for Major League Soccer. Originally called "Project-40" and backed by rival sports giant Nike, the program was designed to offer collegiate players attending schools in the United States a direct path to professional soccer with MLS.
The program was designed to encourage young players to pursue the sport while attending school. It also ensured that if the player's choice to go pro with MLS didn't pan out, then the GA program would provide a safety net-scholarship, so the player could return to school if they wished.
This program created a terrific opportunity, encouraging young talent to consider professional soccer as a real option, while providing a virtually risk-free incentive to take the leap. So why did this year's class only have five takers?
To put things in perspective, the class of 2010, which included Lions expansion draft pickups Danny Mwanga and Amobi Okugo, had 13 members. So why, year after year, have the numbers decreased so rapidly? Short answer: Probably the CBA. Probably the influx of more money into MLS, making starting salaries bigger. And probably the rise of team-owned academies and league partnerships.
Taking on a GA player is a good bit of business for a club, especially for a new team like Orlando, which is pushing the limits of the salary cap. Being able to select two young players who can be developed on the MLS dime makes good financial sense and really fits with the club's ethos of unearthing and molding potential young stars. Just look at what we did to Dom Dwyer (GA Class of 2012).
Orlando City has historically been a strong supporter of the GA program. The meteoric rise through USL PRO was accomplished, not in small part, on the backs of five past grads. That may not seem like a lot, but when they include the names of fan favorites such as Jamie Watson (Class of ‘05) and Rob Valentino (Class of '08 -- same year as current OCSC player Brek Shea), you get an understanding of the type of players that this program develops and insight into why Orlando would use two of its three first day draft picks on its members.
If the program has clearly produced stars of the past, it makes sense to bet on it producing future MLS stars, too.
Even though Orlando continues to maintain the faith in Generation Adidas, despite the dwindling number of eligible players, other clubs don't seem to have the same confidence. Two of this year's GA draftees, Cristian Roldan, who (finally!) ended up in Seattle with the 16th overall pick, and Conor Donovan, who Orlando grabbed at 22nd overall, were originally forecast to go much higher.
During the draft, the announcers were going nuts that Roldan, who was expected to go second or third, was still sitting on the sidelines, out of the top 10 with no date to the dance. Orlando clearly sees potential where others do not. It's because the players that the Lions have recruited in the past have always worked out for them, and because the club understands the significant benefits of bringing on youngsters within their own setup.
Although there are so many upsides for the clubs, the benefits to the players have diminished. A young player under a GA contract has no final say in where they end up playing. Therefore, as MLS has grown and more opportunities have sprung up for young players, fewer are willing to take on the burden of a GA contract, preferring to control their own destiny by skipping the GA program and enlisting for the draft under their own steam.
The program has also probably outgrown what it was originally designed for. With more and more Americans following and understanding soccer than ever before, it is becoming easier to entice young talent to select soccer as their collegiate sport, instead of them being poached by other American sports.
With these issues hurting the GA program, the end of the program is probably nigh. However, Orlando City management is choosing to take advantage of the program while it can, and other clubs aren't.
City fans should rejoice and revel in that. When a fledgling team can take its time to develop young talent under its own system, while not hurting its competitive chances, fans are getting the best of both worlds. They will get to watch competitive sides compete now, as well as in the future.
This year's selection of two GA players in the SuperDraft is quite a coup for a new club as it enters its first year in MLS. The Lions want to be competitive straight out of the gate with strong, vibrant talent, and the GA program is certainly the key to continuing to do that in the years to come.