With the inaugural season in the books, there are a lot of positives to take from Orlando City B’s debut in USL. More regular loanees from the first team received double-digit appearances, led by Tyler Turner with 27, and got crucial playing time and experience that will hopefully elevate their game to the next level. OCB also helped with injured players getting back to match fitness, providing opportunities for Luke Boden, Cristian Higuita, Pedro Ribeiro, and Rafael Ramos to get back into shape in a meaningful match. Several current academy players got a taste of life in the pros.
But potentially the most important development that OCB provided was the signings of Tony Rocha and Mikey Ambrose to first-team contracts at the tail end of the summer transfer window.
Bringing up those two players gave tangible evidence to the bridge between Orlando’s reserve side and taking the next step. They weren’t even City academy products having come over from the Austin Aztex in the off-season. With the pipeline now open, who’s next to come through and earn a first-team contract? And is there anyone with OCB that could be a helpful addition for next year’s playoff run?
OCSC’s eventual successor to Cyle Larin might just be his countryman. If Jason Kreis is rolling out the 4-4-2 full-time next season, he could do worse than adding Canadian Michael Cox into the mixer. The young striker already has European experience in Portugal and Finland and when he finally took over the starting job in Melbourne, he shined. Cox took a backseat to Hadji Barry until the latter was brought up to the first team in the middle of the season, but his performance pushed Barry into relative obscurity at the end of the year. With the uncertain roles of Julio Baptista and Bryan Rochez heading into 2017, a spot on the depth chart is there for the taking.
Cox had a team-leading 11 goals and three assists in 29 appearances with OCB. He doesn’t look it, but he’s roughly the same size as Larin — both are listed at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds — and Cox has some similar skills even though he’s not as prolific. He can play with his back to goal and turn and shoot. His first touch is adequate and he has all the makings of an MLS-quality striker. He could do with some improvement on keeping possession, but that’s something that can easily be improved upon. He’s got a good soccer IQ and knows how to find the gaps in opposing defenses.
Cox is the type of player that can make an impact off the bench and he has the potential to be an adequate spot starter next year in the target-man role.
Pierre Da Silva
Da Silva is likely the next City academy product to make his mark on MLS. He can play as a striker or a wider forward depending on the system and he’s already involved in the U.S. youth setup. Should Kreis implement his diamond, Da Silva can be effective further back in the formation. His versatility is something that MLS clubs desire and Kreis can plug him into the midfield or striker tandem and he can hold his own. Pierre notched 23 appearances for OCB and chipped in five assists and two goals. He could make Pedro Ribeiro irrelevant as he fills the same niches but fits better into Kreis’ pass-and-move philosophy. His technical ability and vision at just 18 years old make him the perfect candidate for a role with the first team. His ability on dead balls and free kicks is an added bonus.
Orlando may have a fight on their hands to sign Da Silva thanks to MLS rules regarding Homegrown Players, but it’s important that they lock him in for the future. He has the potential to be a key component on the offensive end next season and beyond. Getting him in as soon as possible to understudy players like Kaka and Antonio Nocerino could be great for his development.
It seems odd to add to the logjam of young fullbacks on the roster, but Zach Hayden belongs in the conversation for a contract with the first team. He can play both right and left back and has the offensive ability to stretch the width of the attack that Kreis looks for to complement his midfield. For a short time, he had actually pushed HGP Tyler Turner to the bench when Mikey Ambrose had the left back spot locked down. He came on strong toward the end of the season, grabbing two assists.
Hayden has great closing speed and overall athleticism that could prove vital in defending some of the quicker forwards the Lions have historically struggled with. Like a lot of fullbacks, he’s a converted forward and he uses that knowledge and ability to his advantage. He fits the mold of what Kreis looks for in a fullback but he’s untested against quality opposition. His professional experience is limited to PDL and USL and he played his college ball at Cleveland State. While he won the PDL title with K-W United and earned a starting position with OCB, he’s got an uphill battle to make it to the first team.
The kicker is that Zach’s signature is most likely dependent on some departures ahead of him on the depth chart. He’s older than Turner, Ambrose, and Ramos and, if Luke Boden or Kevin Alston were to leave over the winter, he’d be a viable depth signing. He’s more athletic than Boden and cheaper than Alston, but unless he gets a green card he would take up a valuable international spot.
Obekop has the potential to be the quick forward that Kreis loves to utilize next to his target strikers. He has a wealth of experience already, as he’s been heavily involved in the Cameroon youth setup and earned an MLS contract with the New York Red Bulls at just 18 years old. He spent three years with the Red Bulls before coming down to Orlando and couldn’t quite break into their loaded roster, making eight appearances for the first team. He’s got a second chance to get into the big leagues in Orlando and he has the ability to get there eventually.
Obekop started the year as a winger in the 4-2-3-1 formation and couldn’t get onto the field, averaging fewer than 30 minutes in 12 appearances while Adrian Heath’s system was in place. But since OCB made the change to a 4-4-2, Obekop has seen an uptick in usage and averaged almost a 45 in his final six games, including three starts. The big questions about Obekop’s game were his willingness to put in a shift on the defensive end. As a forward, his responsibilities are lessened and he can focus more on producing. He’ll need a little more time to develop but he’s still just 21 years old. He has the potential, he just needs time to play in the right system. Kreis’ preferred style seems to tick all of his boxes and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him making cameos soon like he did for the Red Bulls.
It’s promising that all of this talent is at Orlando City’s disposal and it’s encouraging for the future of the club. Getting players in early and learning the system will do wonders down the line. If some of these OCB products can make their mark in MLS, it’s a testament to the success of the system.