U.S. Soccer announced last week that its U-17 residency program, based at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, will be closing after 18 years. While the change will have little impact on players who are already advancing through academies, no club will feel a greater effect than Orlando City.
In 1999, MLS was still in its infant stage and, like soccer in America, struggling to survive. The senior USMNT had competed in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France and finished dead last, a campaign that included an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Iran. A change needed to be made.
The change made by U.S. Soccer was the establishment of the U-17 residency program on Jan. 17, 1999. With a lack of professional academies across the country, the program gave young players the opportunity to experience an elite training environment, preparing them for a future in professional soccer.
The new program saw immediate success with the U.S. Men’s U-17 National Team finishing fourth in the U-17 FIFA World Cup that November. It’s the best finish the team ever had and featured future stars DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, and Landon Donovan, who was named the tournament’s best player. Orlando City center back Jonathan Spector is also a product of the program.
In all, 33 players that have received call ups to the full national team since 1999 have come through the program. But that wasn’t its biggest impact. The lasting legacy of the U-17 residency program is the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Founded in 2007, the USSDA features 150 clubs, including Orlando City, which must adhere to standards for training and development to maintain membership. This ensures that players are receiving the optimal soccer education a club can provide. In the fall of 2017, U.S. Soccer will add a girls program to the USSDA, of which the Orlando Pride will be an inaugural member.
The reason for the closing of the program is that it simply isn’t needed anymore. In 1999, there were no professional soccer academies producing players in America. But, through MLS Homegrown Player rules, more clubs, at all levels, are developing academies to give young players the best opportunity to succeed.
With the U-17 residency academy based in Bradenton, Orlando City was fortunate enough to be within driving distance of the best young players in the country. And the club took advantage of that on multiple occasions. Orlando City began to take advantage of its location even before the club began life in MLS. Shortly before the club kicked off its final USL season in 2014, it signed defenders Tommy Redding and Tyler Turner from the program. The club would go on to lure Pierre Da Silva and Joe Gallardo from the program to its academy. Gallardo recently signed a deal with Orlando City B and Da Silva, after a stellar 2016 campaign with the reserve side, signed an MLS deal with the club — and made his MLS debut on Saturday night against the Philadelphia Union.
While Orlando City will no longer have this opportunity, it will not change the club’s Homegrown signings. MLS Homegrown Player rules prohibit clubs from signing players to Homegrown contracts if that player made appearances for the U.S. U-17 National Team prior to joining the club’s academy. So, while Da Silva and Gallardo were both products of the Lions’ academy, neither was eligible to sign Homegrown contracts for the club.
Additionally, it will not limit the club from producing quality players out of the academy. Orlando City has put substantial investment toward its academy and the fruits of its labor are starting to show. Local players like Raul Aguilera, Landen Haig, Jack McCloskey, David Norris, and David Loera have seen time with OCB before even graduating the academy and are on the right path to joining the first team. Having only been a member of the USSDA for a few years, Orlando City has already been making waves with the amount of young talent being produced.
American soccer is in the best position it has ever been. Despite the struggles of the full national team during the current qualifying period, MLS is at the healthiest it’s ever been and its academies continue to grow and produce quality talent. The closing of the U-17 residency program in Bradenton was inevitable and ushers in a new era for American soccer development. And, while Orlando City will lose the advantage of its existence, the club is still in a strong position moving forward.