With three power-five schools in the state of Florida, and four more that are in the group of five, it would seem that many of Orlando City’s academy graduates would be able to stay near home to play college soccer. However, with the three biggest schools only fielding women’s teams, many of Orlando City’s top young players have headed to North Carolina. It’s a trend that may continue.
Orlando City’s academy is now heading into its seventh season and is starting to produce several quality players that have been developed solely by the club. After graduating the academy, most of these players have headed to college, but finding the best place to develop means leaving their home state.
The biggest deterrent for these players staying in-state is the fact that the three biggest schools in Florida don’t offer men’s soccer. The University of Florida and Florida State University feature two of the top women’s programs in the country. However, along with the University of Miami, none feature a men’s side. The club’s top players want to play in the best conference and against the best players, which usually means heading to arguably the best conference in college soccer, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The main landing spot for these players has been in the state of North Carolina, the center of college soccer. The area of north central North Carolina, affectionately called the Triangle, anchored by Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham, has long been considered a hotbed of the game. It features WakeMed Soccer Park, one of the preeminent soccer complexes in the country, and has become the home of North Carolina FC of the USL, the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL, and the club’s academy. The facility also routinely hosts ACC soccer championships and NCAA tournaments.
Of the 39 Orlando City academy graduates currently in college, seven play in the state of North Carolina, with four playing in one of the state’s ACC schools. Defender Nicholas O’Callaghan and forward Jaiden Fortune have become mainstays in Elon University’s starting eleven. After decades of near irrelevance, the program became an NCAA Tournament regular under former Orlando City academy coach and current San Antonio FC boss Darren Powell. Orlando City’s much heralded 2017 class also headed to the Tar Heel State with David Loera and David Norris heading to NC State, Raul Aguilera to North Carolina, and Landen Haig to Wake Forest. The seventh North Carolina member is Juan Hernandez who plays at Appalachian State University.
The majority of Orlando City’s academy graduates, 20 to be exact, still play in their home state at schools like the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida, Florida Gulf Coast, Stetson, and Rollins, but a growing number of graduates are looking for the top level of college soccer. That trend seems to be continuing as two of the Lions’ four academy players currently committed to colleges are heading to North Carolina, with AJ Seals committed to NC State and Jose Aldaco committed to North Carolina. The other two are committed to Florida International University and the University of Portland.
While ideally the club’s top academy graduates would preferably stay with the club rather than play college soccer, the current questions about OCB’s future existence makes that difficult. While four players have decided to play at the state’s top two programs in UCF and USF — two for each school — doing so prohibits them from competing each week against the top-quality competition you see in the ACC. Unfortunately for the club, this makes it more difficult for the coaching staff to keep an eye on those players. While all ACC soccer games are streamed by ESPN, having those players playing closer to home would make it easier for the Orlando City staff to view their development first hand.
Due to Title IX regulations, it’s unlikely that Florida State or Miami will field men’s soccer teams in the near future, which will leave Orlando City’s academy graduates without any other option than to leave the state if they wish to test themselves at the highest level. With North Carolina featuring four ACC teams and three of the top programs in the country, it’s likely that we could see more players heading north in the future, making the state a top developing ground for Orlando City’s Homegrown Players.