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Tony Rocha’s Debut Marks a Milestone for Orlando City B

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Midfielder Tony Rocha’s path to his MLS debut proves OCB’s ability to prepare players for the next level.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Cristian Higuita was down injured. He had just pulled up outside the Chicago penalty box, without contact, and raised his hand to signal the medical staff. Jason Kreis had a dilemma: experienced center midfielders Antonio Nocerino and Harrison Heath were unavailable. The bench was filled with forwards, wingers, and defenders that would mean changing the shape of the team. That is, except for Tony Rocha, who had barely signed his MLS contract 10 days prior.

Rocha has played some central midfield before — including against the Jacksonville Armada in Orlando City’s first U.S. Open Cup match this season — playing that position and a few others in the midfield at OCB. But, despite his lack of MLS minutes, Kreis still tapped the young midfielder, who made his league debut for the Lions.

In that half hour, Rocha proved that he belonged in the big leagues. He managed to connect 21 of his 27 passes, including a key pass to Brek Shea on the edge of the box that sliced between two Fire defenders. He made successful contributions on defense as well, winning both of his tackles on the edge of Orlando’s area and making several recoveries in the defensive half.

For a young player, making his first appearance in MLS, it was a good start. It’s an encouraging sign, not just for Rocha but for Orlando’s system as a whole. The majority of Orlando City B’s players — including Rocha — were brought over from other clubs. While most other established MLS-owned and operated reserve teams are populated with academy products, OCB doesn’t have the numbers yet.

But the club has used the need for players to its advantage. The Lions have brought in young talent from around USL, namely Rocha and Mikey Ambrose, and abroad to test them in the system and the American game. Orlando has brought in an equal amount of international talent and players with MLS ties; Zach Ellis-Hayden, Michael Cox, Kyle Callan-McFadden, Mark Ridgers, and William Eyang were all brought in from international clubs and five other players were drafted by or played for other MLS clubs but couldn’t get on the respective rosters: Rocha (Sporting Kansas City), Ambrose (FC Dallas), Craig Nitti (Vancouver), Keegan Smith (Montreal), and Marius Obekop (New York Red Bulls).

The latter group has the small issue of having their rights owned by other teams, but Orlando City has proven that they are willing to give up assets to get those rights. Rocha and Ambrose are safer bets compared to the third- and fourth-round draft picks City had to give up, but it shows young players that the club is willing to pay the asking price for their services. For the international players, it adds another potential bonus. They’re living and working in the U.S., potentially working toward green cards. This could be crucial for players like Michael Cox, the Canadian striker who leads OCB in goals scored.

The bottom line is that Orlando has set a precedent. The team is offering second chances to players like the MLS draftees and Callan-McFadden, whose contract wasn’t renewed by Norwich City. Signing Tony Rocha and Mikey Ambrose was the first step in cementing the pipeline from OCB to the first team, and giving Rocha meaningful minutes was the second. Orlando has proven that the connection between their two teams goes both ways and players don’t have to come through the academy to get their shot.