Just before the start of last season, Major League Soccer allowed every team in the league to sign two extra players. There were some stipulations, of course; these roster spots could only be filled by Homegrown players. With Tommy Redding and Mason Stajduhar already in the side, Orlando City was able to take full advantage and fill the roster out to the full 30 men.
But for the first time in the club’s short MLS history, the Lions’ active roster is devoid of Homegrown talent. Stajduhar, while still a member of the City squad, will spend 2018 on the Season-Ending Injury List and Redding was recently sent to the New York Red Bulls as part of the trade for Sacha Kljestan. So while Orlando technically has six open roster spots, if the Lions want to have a full squad of 30 it will require two of those new players to be Homegrown.
The good news for the Lions is that there are a handful of talented players that could potentially make the jump. Here are five that could be suiting up in purple if the front office gives them the call:
The senior midfielder was a stalwart at Creighton University for all four years. With 85 matches under his belt, he’s well seasoned in central midfield and has even spent some time at fullback, picking up seven goals and 14 assists during his career. With the departures of Servando Carrasco and Antonio Nocerino, the Lions are thin at defensive midfield and could use Franke’s engine, passing, and defensive ability.
With the fate of Orlando City B still unknown for 2018 — and looking less and less likely to field a team this year as we approach the USL schedule release — the front office may be hesitant to pull a younger player out of college without the guarantee of playing time. (And players may be hesitant to leave early now that they’ve started down that path.) Franke doesn’t have any of those potential issues with his college career over and a quicker path to minutes with less competition in front of him, making him an ideal candidate to take a roster spot this season.
Patino still has one more year of eligibility at FIU, but the striker’s stellar junior year could convince the Orlando City brass that he’s ready for the pros now. Patino scored 15 goals in 18 matches this year, which earned him enough votes to be named a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy. If Cyle Larin departs for another club, the Lions will be stretched thin up top with just Dom Dwyer and Stefano Pinho on the roster to lead the line.
Santiago has good size at six feet tall and great strength at the college level. He’s also got a rocket for a right foot:
He’s developed a deadliness in front of goal this season after scoring only 10 goals combined in 2015 and 2016. Patino could be a potential replacement for Larin as a big body when Orlando needs a goal late in the game, but he’ll need some time to get up to speed. While Santiago doesn’t have the highest ceiling of the potential Homegrown signings, he’s more likely than the others to be able to contribute this year.
The glaring need for Orlando City is at center back. After letting Seb Hines and Conor Donovan walk and trading Tommy Redding, the Lions are left with only Jonathan Spector and Jose Aja on the roster. While a new starter is likely in the works, Orlando will still need to add some depth. As a freshman, Norris started all 18 matches for NC State, including the meat grinder that is the ACC, earning eight clean sheets. He helped keep heavyweights like Clemson and Virginia off the scoreboard, which is impressive given all of the attacking talent that will likely be drafted early and often from between those two squads next week.
While Norris might be the most talented central defender the Lions currently have in the college ranks, he’s getting more regular playing time than peers like Jack McCloskey at UCF. Offering Norris a pro contract would mean taking those minutes away but putting him in a professional environment and training with more talented players. The debate about which is better for player development is longstanding but it’s possible that Orlando City’s need for defenders may force its hand.
Loera has been pegged as the next young attacker to come up through the ranks. Like Norris, Loera has been handed as many minutes as he could ever want at NC State resulting in a phenomenal freshman season where he led the Wolfpack in assists with five. David’s ceiling is as high as any player that Orlando has produced since its academy got started and he seems destined for the the MLS side at some point. Getting him into the pro setup sooner and putting him up against tougher competition on a daily basis could speed up that process, but like Norris it would mean taking away a good amount of minutes and having the player walk away from college after just one year.
In Loera’s case, there are quite a few creative midfielders on the team already with Sacha Kljestan, Jose Villarreal, and even Pierre Da Silva. Should Josué Colmán join the team, it would add another competitor that’s roughly the same age. Without a clear path into the first team, Loera might be better served staying in college and playing as much as possible. As far as college competition goes, the ACC is among the best and with the young nucleus NC State has assembled, the team is a good bet to go back to the NCAA tournament. While it might be in Orlando’s best interest to get Loera on a pro deal sooner rather than later, it might be wisest to wait until OCB is back up and running at full speed to give him the best of both worlds.
City’s next top prospect looks like dynamic young midfielder AJ Seals, who was recently called up to the U.S. U-19 team for the first ever Youth National Team Summit. Seals has been dominating the Development Academy circuit this year with nine goals in 14 matches from midfield. In the prior two seasons, Seals scored twice.
Currently committed to NC State, Orlando would have to convince him to turn pro and not join his former teammates up in Raleigh. But AJ has shown a propensity to slide in anywhere in the midfield from the holding role to creating, and could prove valuable to the Lions if he can make the jump. Of the current crop of U-18/19s, Seals is the most likely to make an impact in the pro game, but chances are he’d spend 2018 on the bench. He’s already made a cameo appearance for OCB this season against Toronto FC II and the staff has shown some faith in his potential. Whether or not it believes he should take the college route or the pro route for now is another story.
Orlando’s brass has an opportunity to showcase the strength of the academy by bringing in a pair of prospects and putting them in a professional environment. It’ll need to if it wants a full roster of players available to Jason Kreis.