In 2012, Orlando City purchased a controlling interest in a local youth club, Florida Soccer Alliance (FSA), and began to build a professional youth academy. In the years since, the club has worked tirelessly by investing large sums of money in an attempt to develop players out of the academy for the first team. Now, the club is starting to see the results it desired.
There are several reasons why it’s important that a club in MLS is able to develop its own players. MLS’ homegrown rules give clubs the opportunity to sign players out of the academy who will not count against the team’s salary budget. The club will also own the rights to any players who meet the Homegrown requirements, regardless of if they sign a Homegrown Player deal or go into another league. While MLS aims to be a top league one day, it is currently still a selling league, so clubs can benefit from producing players who are sold to big clubs in Europe. This will become more important when the league’s single-entity structure eventually falls.
This year marks the sixth year that the Orlando City youth academy has been in existence. It is generally agreed on that it takes about seven years for a club to start producing players out of its academy. That means players that join the academy at young ages are developed completely by the club. This year marks a milestone for the Lions because, apart from being the best class the academy has graduated, it’s really the first year that the class is full of players that were fully developed by the club.
This month, five key players out of the academy will graduate from high school; Raul Aguilera, Jack McCloskey, David Loera, David Norris, and Landen Haig. All five of these players have signed letters of intent to play at major soccer colleges (Aguilera at North Carolina, McCloskey at Ohio State, Loera and Norris at NC State, and Haig at Wake Forest) and will now have to make the decision whether they want to go to college or sign Homegrown contracts with the club.
Last year, the club launched its USL team, Orlando City B. One of the main reasons for doing this was to create a place for these young players to continue developing prior to joining the first team in MLS. If these five players decide to sign Homegrown contracts, they would begin their professional career at OCB, a team in which all five have played for already.
From the club’s perspective, it’s much better if the players forgo college and join OCB. For all the advantages of a college education, playing college soccer hinders the development of elite prospects. With a focus on winning rather than development and out from under the watchful eye of the club, college soccer is essentially two to three years lost in the player’s development. But it’s a decision that the young players must make themselves.
Orlando City has brought a lot of attention to two players that have recently been signed out of the academy — Pierre Da Silva and Joe Gallardo. But these players were brought in from the IMG Academy in Bradenton and had already made appearances for the U.S. U-17 national team. This means that they were ineligible to be signed as Homegrown Players. Even though the club has signed four Homegrown Players (Tyler Turner, Tommy Redding, Harrison Heath, and Mason Stajduhar), only Stajduhar came out of the academy.
Player development has been a major focus by MLS and its clubs. Some clubs, such as New York Red Bulls, have seen great success in developing their own players. Orlando City is looking to achieve such success. This group of graduates shows that the club is certainly heading in the right direction and that the first truly Homegrown Player for Orlando City’s first team is right around the corner.