Orlando City has long championed a European-style academy system, with players working their way up the age divisions in a linear fashion. It has the distinct advantage of allowing the club to control development from top to bottom, installing the same play style and system throughout. It has worked well so far, producing first-team signings like Tommy Redding, Mason Stajduhar, and most recently Pierre Da Silva.
Getting into Orlando’s highly rated academy system is a privilege for some of the most talented players in the state and — like recent OCB signing Joe Gallardo — elsewhere. But its biggest problem is its scope.
Developing youth is infamously full of highly rated prospects not living up to their billing and with the size and scope of the United States, most of those potential prospects aren’t even getting seen by professional academies. Look at Orlando City’s Homegrown territory, explained expertly by our friends at Brotherly Game, complete with visuals. It extends 100 miles from Church Street and reaches major population centers like Tampa and Jacksonville, but it’s still understandable that more than a few kids are falling through the cracks. Other MLS clubs have worked around this by forming affiliates with neighboring programs, casting a wider net and getting more eyes on potential prospects; teams have anywhere from just a handful to Sporting Kansas City’s 15. Orlando has yet to incorporate this model of American development, though its expansion partner, New York City FC, already has 11 affiliates.
That’s not to say that Orlando hasn’t made good use of talent within its territory. IMG Academy in Bradenton, where the U.S. Youth National Teams have their residency, is within City’s HGP zone. Former Homegrown Tyler Turner came to the Lions from IMG in 2014. A similar opportunity for Orlando City burst onto the scene in 2013, and if recent history is a trend then it could prove positive for Orlando in the future.
On Thursday, OCB signed Cameroonians Jules Youmeni and Albert Dikwa out of the Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy (SIMA). Montverde, a prep school located just over 20 miles from the club’s new downtown stadium, has recently developed a reputation for producing outstanding international high school soccer players. Ten of its alumni have signed professional contracts after graduating since 2012, sending them to France’s Ligue 2, the Norwegian top flight, and even MLS. Vancouver’s Deybi Flores and San Jose’s Mathaus Silva both called Montverde home before making the jump to the top of the U.S. pyramid.
And it doesn’t just excel at producing teenage pros. Clemson, which entered this year’s NCAA Championship bracket as a top three team in the country, boasts an astounding eight Montverde graduates on its roster. And it’s no wonder, when former Netherlands international and FC Barcelona boss Frank Rijkaard has had a hand in player development.
SIMA is a half-school, half-soccer talent conveyor belt. Students go through rigorous training with a focus on development and it has shown remarkable results. SIMA went 157 matches unbeaten, including several national titles since 2010. It competes against the top teams in the country during the annual Montverde Academy Soccer Tournament and has gone toe-to-toe with the USYNT and top academies from around the world like Feyenoord and Flamengo. SIMA has even been awarded a USL PDL franchise for the upcoming 2017 season.
City fans may remember the club’s most productive alumni, Oumar Diakhite, who climbed from Montverde to Orlando’s U-23 team, then the first team, and finally to Portugal’s Olhanense. That history, combined with the two recent signings, could develop a bond between OCSC and SIMA, which could provide the Lions with a veritable factory of international talent.
SIMA consistently draws in talented youngsters from West Africa, Central America, and Brazil, and puts them right into Orlando City’s back yard. While FIFA might frown upon young players crossing continents just for soccer purposes, there’s nothing against players attending a private school and signing with Orlando once they graduate and turn 18.
While it wouldn’t be a traditional academy affiliate like other MLS franchises, consistently adding Montverde graduates to the club’s youth structure before they jump to other pro leagues would prove more than beneficial in the long run. Because SIMA is within City’s HGP territory and players are often there for several years before graduating — Youmeni and Dikwa were at SIMA since 2013 and 2014, respectively — they would theoretically be eligible for Homegrown contracts. It could have a profound impact on City’s future.