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As U.S. Soccer Asks for Change, Orlando City has Already Started

City’s long-term initiatives already have the team on track to improve the growth of the game.

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

The biggest questions in the U.S. Soccer landscape after the Men’s National Team crashed out of the Hex on Tuesday night have been: where do we go from here and how do we prevent that kind of disappointment from happening again? Fingers have been pointed at every level of the United States Soccer Federation, from President Sunil Gulati to MLS.

There is no magic bullet to solve the problem. Changing the landscape of soccer in America is a long and intense process that will be full of trial and error. The eventual solution will likely be a combination of several sweeping changes at various levels of the American game.

In fact, there’s a good chance that the changes have actually been in motion for several years. They aren’t quick fixes that will magically improve the product by next year or the 2019 Gold Cup. The fruits of this labor might only become apparent when World Cup qualifying rolls back around in 2020 or even later. Even though the projects have been in the works in Orlando since 2015, it will take time.

CIty has been committed to youth development since the club was in the USL. Recently, the Development Academy has had smashing success and the route from the academy to Orlando City B to MLS has already paid dividends. With Orlando’s quick production of Homegrown products like Tommy Redding and Mason Stajduhar and academy graduates like Pierre Da Silva and Joe Gallardo in the pro ranks, there is optimism that the club is on the right track. But it’s the long-term development that will solidify the growth of the game in Central Florida.

Along with other MLS clubs, Orlando City has taken up the mantle of youth development and has made a lot of recent strides to make youth soccer more accessible in Central Florida and to provide an avenue to the professional game for more Floridian kids. It will take a combination of several efforts for Orlando City specifically to build out the academy and get more people interested in the game at an earlier age.

What could eventually be a major influence in several years is the Mini-Pitch initiative by MLS WORKS. All MLS clubs are participating in creating community engagement by building mini-pitches in under-served areas. City has already built five all over Orlando, predominantly on the west side of the city in community and outreach centers.

Making soccer as accessible as other sports should go a long way to increasing its popularity and getting a larger number of kids interested in going pro. These pitches are also providing an experience that more closely resembles futsal, a version of the game that relies more on ball skills than the traditional American athleticism and long ball that has dominated traditional youth soccer fields.

With initiatives like this, it will be difficult to track its specific effectiveness over time. The Orlando City Foundation has already reported good turnout on the mini-pitches, which is a good sign, but until the Orlando City academy begins to to see an uptick in academy players from these parts of Orlando, it will be tough to judge just how much these pitches are changing the future of the game.

Luckily, not all of Orlando City’s eggs are in the mini-pitch basket. Until this season, the Orlando City Development Academy — the top level of the OCYS system — has been linear. While the club has been good about getting top talent to migrate to the academy, players will still slip through the cracks. Top talents in the U.S. player pool like Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent may be the best examples of players that grew up outside of an MLS team’s field of vision. While there aren’t Pulisics and Sargents everywhere, it’s a reminder that the MLS academy system is limited in a country as large as the United States. There is talent out there going unseen.

Orlando City’s Homegrown territory is much larger than the Orlando metro area and has been relatively ignored until this year.

With the inception of the Youth Affiliate Program, City is attempting to broaden the club’s scope. South Orlando Soccer Club and Tampa’s Chargers Soccer Club are the first members and likely not the last. It’s a method that several other MLS clubs have operated under, allowing autonomy for the affiliate clubs with MLS guidance. This initiative may not provide Orlando with strong pipelines of talent — though it will certainly help — but it helps provide a more professional environment to more youth players in Central Florida. The phrase “a rising tide raises all ships” may be a tad cliche, but as OCSC searches for top talent, the club will improve development around the area.

There are still quite a few locations under Orlando City’s Homegrown umbrella that will need affiliations but with such a relatively new project, it will take time to grow. North Florida and the panhandle are home to several Florida Youth Soccer clubs that City could look to in order to expand its footprint.

The effort isn’t limited to just expanding the scope to other parts of Florida. Orlando has been trying to provide more options to players within the metro area as well. City is a charter member of the Southeast Conference of the new Boys’ ECNL. Orlando has invested in making sure there are plenty of opportunities available.

The seeds of change have already been sown in Orlando. It will take years before these initiatives can be deemed a success or failure, but it’s important to note that change is happening. As Orlando and other MLS clubs improve the overall youth development at the grassroots level, it will steadily improve the player pool. As the number and quality of opportunities grow, fewer players will fall through the cracks and hopefully more players will continue to stick with the sport as the professional level becomes a more viable and achievable target.

Change was happening in Central Florida before the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup and change will continue. It’s just a matter of producing results.