In 1999, U.S. Soccer opened its residency program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. National team stars such as Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Landon Donovan spent time at the academy as they competed with the U-16 and U-17 national teams. Due to its location, Orlando City has had the unique opportunity to scout and sign players out of the academy. But the club’s most recent move has shown a small flaw in drawing players from there.
Orlando City began to take advantage of its proximity to the academy in 2014 when the Lions signed Tommy Redding and Tyler Turner to MLS contracts. They continued that when they lured New York native Pierre Da Silva to their academy. However, Da Silva’s move has shown that the club can’t depend on players from the IMG Academy.
Signing players to Homegrown contracts is a big plus for any MLS team. Due to salary constraints set by the league, the ability to sign players that are not overly expensive and don’t count against the cap is crucial to success. Players that are signed to MLS contracts out of the academy, given that they’ve spent at least a year there and meet all training requirements, are eligible to be signed as Homegrown Players. However, there is one exception. Any player that has played for the U.S. U-17 national team or higher prior to joining the academy, is not eligible to be signed as a Homegrown Player.
Another aspect of MLS’ Homegrown Player rule is territory. If a player grows up in an area but did not come through the academy of the MLS club that resides in that area, that local club can still sign that player as a Homegrown Player. So, if a player joins the IMG Academy from an area within another MLS team’s territory, and plays for the U.S. U-17 national team prior to joining Orlando City, rendering him ineligible, the club from his former home still holds his Homegrown rights, regardless of whether he even joined that club.
If you’re confused, welcome to the convoluted rules of MLS.
When Orlando City brought Da Silva into the club’s academy, despite the fact that he was still quite young, he had already made appearances for the U.S. U-17 National Team. This meant that the Lions could not make him a Homegrown Player, but that his Homegrown rights were held by the clubs where he previously played — New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls.
That’s not to say that Orlando City shouldn’t continue to draw young players from the IMG Academy. There is some tremendous talent in Bradenton that is not attached to other MLS clubs. However, as youth development of MLS continues to grow, so will the importance of the Homegrown Player.
To Orlando City’s credit, the club has continued to invest in young, local talent. Last year alone, academy players David Loera, David Norris, Raul Aguilera, Jack McCloskey, Isaque Couto, and Landen Haig were called into action for Orlando City B. All of those players are making their way through the club’s academy and are eligible to be signed as Homegrown Players. But the club needs to make sure that it continues to focus on producing Homegrown-eligible players and not depend on the academy on the Gulf Coast. Going forward, that will be the key to future success.