From the very beginning of Orlando City's preparation for MLS, Head Coach Adrian Heath has always been a proponent of building the club up through young players and the academy system. While there have been some growing pains so far this year, these young talents have proven themselves to be budding stars in the league.
With 13 players under the age of 23, Orlando has one of the youngest rosters in MLS. The usual mold for expansion teams in the past has been to pick up veteran talent from other teams for the first few years, but Orlando has broken that mold and done things differently. Whether scouting these players from other teams, youth academies, overseas teams, or right here in Orlando, the club has built a solid team that will be able to improve as the next few seasons go on, without having to worry about monitoring playing time due to age.
Out of the 13 players under age 23, four of them have been regular starters in the lineup and seven of them have started at least one game. Nine of those players have seen the field at some point this year, but four of them -- Tommy Redding, Conor Donovan, Estrela and Earl Edwards Jr. -- have not yet played in a league game this season and may not get a chance this year. However, this doesn't necessarily say that these four are not yet ready to play with the first team. Think of it more that the talent of those younger players makes it a difficult call.
Speaking of talent, by far the most impressive youth prospect on the team has been Portuguese international Rafael Ramos. The right back has started 10 games this year and has already been labeled by some as the one of the best young right backs in MLS. His speed and ball control have been on display for all to see and people have been taking notice, with Ramos making a few "MLS Best 11" teams for various websites.
Ramos has also been a key player on the attacking aspect of the ball, making good runs forward and allowing Orlando to get more men in the box and to have better chances of scoring. Through that attacking mentality, Ramos got his first MLS assist against the New England Revolution, courtesy of another player under 23, Cyle Larin.
Larin, although going number one overall in the MLS SuperDraft, was not expected to play very much through his first season with Orlando. When Martin Paterson and Pedro Ribeiro went down with injuries, he was thrust into action and, through nine games, he has been a standout player.
Through his first few games, Larin looked a bit tentative on the pitch. At only 20 years of age and with only two years of college soccer under his belt, being thrust into playing was not an easy task to take on. However, with time, practice, and a goal against the Portland Timbers, Larin has developed into a confident, physical forward who is able to hold his own against some of the top defenders in the league.
Already with four goals in nine games, there is still a lot to come this year for Larin, so even though both Paterson and Ribeiro have returned from injury, Larin will most likely continue to hold down that lone striker spot up top and hopefully continue to flourish.
With 22 more games left in the season, the youth of Orlando will begin to be put to the test as the team plays more and more games. It will be imperative for the coaching staff, as well as the more veteran teammates, to help the younger players through the bulk of the MLS season. At the rate these players are going, you can hope come November, Orlando City will be in the playoffs with a lot of the credit going to the young players who helped make it happen.