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Is It Worth It for Orlando City to Field a U-23 Team?

With the USL PDL season in full swing, the question must be asked. Is it worth it for an MLS team to field both a U-23 and USL team?

Orlando City U23 team from 2014
Orlando City U23 team from 2014
Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend the USL PDL season got into full swing. Like with the USL, there are some MLS teams that also feature PDL teams but most don't. The unanswered question is: with the USL reserve teams growing by the year, is it worth it to feature a PDL team anymore?

The PDL does have its purpose for MLS clubs. NCAA rules state that, while you are allowed to play against professional players, you can't play on the same team with professional players and keep your college eligibility. Therefore, college players that have come out of an MLS academy would be foregoing their college eligibility if they joined a professional USL side, regardless of whether they got paid.

Due to eligibility rules and PDL age limitations, which put restraints on the number of players a team can have over the age of 23, each MLS-owned PDL team has been a U-23 team, linking the academy with the reserve or senior team. At one time or another, 12 of the 20 current MLS clubs have had a U-23 team in the NPSL or PDL. With Orlando City ending its U-23 team this year, that number is now down to five.

But does it make sense to still have a U-23 team and a reserve team? The best argument for having a U-23 team is giving your Homegrown Players that are in college a place to play during the three-month PDL season when school is out of session. Of course, there are other teams they can play for and it wouldn't effect their Homegrown status with the MLS club.

Orlando City saw firsthand how that works. Midfielder Andrew Brody was raised in Orlando but moved to Arizona to join the Real Salt Lake academy prior to attending the University of Louisville. Since RSL has never had a U-23 team, Brody came home to play for Orlando City U-23 during the summer. When he graduated, his rights were still held by Real Salt Lake as a Homegrown Player. Today, he plays for Real Monarchs, RSL's USL team.
As previously mentioned, there are currently five MLS clubs that feature U-23 teams in PDL; Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, Portland Timbers, and Seattle Sounders. Of those five, Toronto, Red Bulls, Timbers, and Sounders have USL teams.

There is certainly a shift in how clubs are being structured today. In the past, many teams had U-23 teams, which were used to be that link between the academy and the senior team. But, other than those four clubs that have teams in PDL and USL, clubs are now creating USL teams as reserve sides and foregoing U-23 teams.

Orlando City U-23 was founded in 2012, following the club's first season in USL. The fledgling club had an agreement with the Central Florida Kraze in 2011 and bought the team in 2012. Orlando City U-23 would remain a growing part of the club until it was quietly disbanded following the 2015 season.

The interesting part of the disbanding of the U-23 team is that it was growing. As the academy continued to mature, more and more players that were eligible to be Homegrown were going to college and spending the summer with the U-23s. In 2015, Orlando City U-23 had the most players out of the academy since officially becoming the U-23 team three years prior.

At the end of the day, each club's management and technical staff has to decide for themselves whether it's worth it to have a U-23 team. The players that are in college do need to play year-round, which includes those three months of the PDL season. But having them play at another club won't affect their status as Homegrown Players when they turn professional.

For Orlando City, it may have just been too difficult to continue to run the team. While club President Phil Rawlins labeled the U-23 team "redundant" earlier this year, it's anything but, as it does serve a separate purpose to the USL side. However, the club just launched a professional USL team and an NWSL side, which it hadn't planned on starting until 2017. So running four teams may have been a bit much.

In fact, the only club with four teams above the academy level is the Portland Timbers. While there is a Seattle Sounders Women, the MLS club simply leased the name to that team and has no ties otherwise. And the Reign are a completely separate entity. Neither New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, or Toronto FC have women's teams.

Now that Orlando City B has been launched, Orlando City decided that its U-23 team was no longer necessary. But while that decision was made, other MLS clubs have apparently come to the conclusion that a U-23 team does hold significance in player development. The answer as to whether it's beneficial to have a U-23 team and USL team in 2016 will clearly differ based on which organization you ask.