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By the Numbers: OCB and Playing Time for Young Players

OCB is full of young talent but the players aren’t seeing the field.

Nick Leyva, The Mane Land

Orlando City B provides a variety of positive advantages to the first team. It gives fringe players opportunities to get live action and allows injured players to work back to full fitness in a controlled setting. But most importantly, it gives young prospects the time to develop in a professional environment. And while OCB has utilized the majority of the playing time available to benefit the first team, there’s been a heavy amount of turnover.

The lack of commitment to players makes sense given the angle the club has taken to roster building. Large portions of the roster over the past two seasons have migrated over from other USL sides after failing to make the grade. And while there was a backslide in minutes for the youngest OCB players in 2017, leaving a roster of four teenagers gives hope that change is on the way.

With these changes, there needs to be a commitment to a youth movement. Not the illusion of a youth movement, but a commitment to younger players for longer than one season. Turnover is naturally going to be high but cutting all but four players every season is hardly a recipe for long-term success. The groundwork has been laid for a new approach to roster building with the four retained players — Albert Dikwa, Ryley Kraft, Joe Gallardo, and Youmeni Jules — all age 19. Next year’s roster needs to be built around these four in a similar mold.

OCB technically did get younger from 2016 to 2017. Of the new players signed to USL contracts this season, the average age was 21.4. And 14 of the 32 players that made an appearance in the USL this season were age 21 and under, which is also an improvement over last season. But the number of appearances declined, the amount of rotation decreased, and the number of minutes for players under 21 tanked:

In 2016, players 21 and under accounted for 40.4% of available minutes. This season, they only accounted for 22.6% and there were more of them on the roster. If you wanted to make that number even more disappointing, Pierre Da Silva was 6.9% of the total minutes by himself, meaning the other 13 combined for less than 16% of the total minutes available.

It’s not just the youngest end of the roster. The average age of players that made a minimum of 10 appearances in 2017 is 24.5, a noticeable spike from last year’s average of 23.9. Part of that is skewed by the core of the roster aging naturally, but there’s a lot to be said with the introduction of Kevin Alston (29), Seb Hines (29), Fernando Timbo (27), and Austin Martz (25). All four logged an average of over 1,000 minutes this season while only one of the four players on the roster for next season broke that number. And while the average age of the roster as a whole stayed the same, the players that saw the pitch the most got older and fewer players hit that 10-match milestone with more games on the schedule.

It begs the question, are the goals of the team misplaced?

It’s obvious that one of the main goals for OCB going into every year is to make the USL playoffs. But a consequence of trying to achieve that goal is leaning on older talent in an attempt to get results rather than fostering development and allowing players to make rookie mistakes and fail. No, you probably won’t win as many matches starting Youmeni Jules at fullback instead of Kevin Alston, Fernando Timbo, or Scott Thomsen. But the latter three won’t be here next season, so what do the young Lions have to show for a season’s hard work? Four youngsters with a combined 42 appearances (22 of which belong to Dikwa) and minimal minutes of meaningful game time.

So, instead of investing resources on younger players with more potential and a higher ceiling, OCB has instead chosen to take chances with older players. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s a fine balancing act; it’s part of evaluating talent as a B team. It’s not just about what a player can do on the pitch, it’s about potential and the latter holds far more weight. Not every teenager will have the same ceiling as a rookie who just graduated from college. It’s about taking the right chances.

There are positives to the one year turnover where OCB can evaluate more players, take more chances, and hope some stick. But one year is a short time in which to make an impression for a young player, especially players who are in their first year as a professional. One of the nuances of the American game is that with college soccer in play, those rookies are going to be older. It’s not just about learning a new system or style of play. It’s also about a longer season and a new training regimen, along with balancing the demands of being a professional.

So which is the better mechanism: devoting more time and effort to a handful of players or a full year to 20? With the recent roster decisions, cutting talented players that were a little on the older side, the organization has the opportunity to shift its focus going into next season.

That’s not to say there needs to be a full-on youth movement and players who haven’t earned first-team looks by 22 need to be pushed out the door. There is a place for players like Zach Carroll or Jordan Schweitzer every season. Players like Seb Hines will need to drop down to OCB to get game time more often than not and guys like Hines will take time away from younger players. Older draft picks like Richie Laryea and Hadji Barry deserve their own time and resources to acclimate to the program. OCB does not need to be a glorified version of the U-19 academy team. But there needs to be a concerted effort to get the younger players that are on the roster valuable playing time.

The young Lions may ultimately fall short of the USL playoffs again, but if there is tangible progress with the players on the roster, does it really matter?

Hopefully, as the team embarks on year three, we will see some younger faces get more opportunities.

Of course, all of this is contingent on OCB remaining in the USL next season.