This past week, Orlando City has made two major decisions within the soccer pyramid that — regardless of anyone’s opinion — is going to shape the short- and long-term future of the organization. The first was the decision to move its academy operations to Montverde Academy beginning this spring. Second, the club announced Orlando City B, its USL franchise, will not play in 2018.
You simply cannot make these types of changes without causing major change — negatively or positively. Unfortunately for City, I believe these moves are both very wrong for the future.
In speaking of the traditional U.S. soccer pyramid, that’s even a little tough as many organizations operate differently. But I think most would agree with the following:
We could talk about the disconnect of the youth club and the academy, or the disconnect between the professional tiers and the academy. But that’s not the purpose here. Those are issues but they're not long-term-vision altering from the top. The issues lie with one of the major pieces of this pyramid basically being cut out and the other effectively being treated like a redheaded step child that isn't viewed as the valuable asset it can be.
We’ll look at each of these decisions separately as I hope to show that alarm bells should be ringing for the long-term vision of the club.
The decision to suspend OCB operations means the club has lost a valuable player personnel and development asset. This isn't about money — or rather profit — as most minor league franchises are lucky to operate in the black. What this means is a player that many of us love, like Pierre Da Silva, gets to be buried on the depth chart at the MLS level because he’s not ready to start at that level. This takes a young promising player and wastes a prime year of development. If the USL team exists, players like Da Silva or Earl Edwards Jr. have the opportunity to gain valuable experience on the pitch. Now they’ll be bench and practice fodder that will ultimately stunt their development.
Think about when a player is injured and they're in their rehabilitation track. USL teams provide the opportunity for a player to work back from injury at relative game speed without needing to take away from valuable substitutions at the MLS level.
Now imagine you’re a young player — college or otherwise — would you want to come to Orlando City if you were going to sit the bench more often than not? If the organization appears to not be invested in development? I would venture to say no.
This will limit the player pool that Orlando City has at any point — whether it needs spot bench subs or needs to hold onto its academy Homegrown Players. And in a race for players, your USL team allows you to hold players away from your competition. Even if you do nothing with them, it’s about not letting the competition have a diamond in the rough.
Maybe this all is moot, as the MLS2 teams have been an issue for the USL and how their Division II teams should move forward. But you can’t help think that is a massive loss for the organization.
Flashback almost two years ago to the day and Orlando City was talking about winning the arms race in professional and academy facilities. A gorgeous, “brand new, state-of-the-art, 23-acre training facility at the Lake Nona Sports & Performance District,” according to the club. And it was quoted as being ready by the start of 2017 seasons for both professional teams. But instead of talking about the issues that’ll bring at the top level, lets continue to focus on this specific decision.
What have we heard since 2016? Basically nothing. What do we now know? The academy is no longer going to be a professional training venue but rather a high school. What can we rationalize? This facility is potentially dead in the water.
The academy moving to Montverde Academy can only mean that the club is nowhere close to this training center. Why else do it? There are very little advantages to joining Montverde and the S.I.M.A. program apart from perhaps recruiting international players, an area in which Montverde has seen some success.
One of the biggest positives I’m hearing is that it’ll grow City’s chance to find kids through a very successful program that has given birth to multiple MLS players (17) over the years. But couldn't Orlando just, I don’t know, scout them? Yes it could potentially Homegrown tie them (details still aren't out how that could work with signing kids to the academy from the program), but if they're in your backyard — and you had a USL team they could play for — then you should be able to sign them, primarily because they’ve already been doing that!
Some people are calling this a residential opportunity akin to that of Barça Academy where Montverde will be able to bring in players otherwise outside Orlando’s reach. Again, we don’t know the full details and how this could skirt MLS rules — should it be allowed — but it just doesn't feel right. And then does this mean Orlando City is going to subsidize tuition to Montverde? Or will the club pay them for dorm space? All of this seems unlikely, more importantly unclear, as we move forward with little information.
Why would you not want to run your own academy in full? Why would you be passing off operations to anyone else? Well, when you look at the academy in its history it kinda makes sense. It’s had three different directors in the past three years. That doesn't happen without something else going on behind the scenes. And before you ask if they're qualified, the Red Bulls — who know how to churn academy and USL success like it’s nothing (i.e. Tyler Adams) — hired former City Academy Director David Longwell faster than he could hop on a plane and get off in Newark. And under David’s guidance we saw the academy achieve success it hasn't seen before.
When more and more academies are investing in infrastructure: Atlanta, LA Galaxy, Philadelphia, Real Salt Lake, and the list goes on, Orlando is doing exactly the opposite: pushing off its academy to be someone else’s responsibility. This isn't the way you operate a successful soccer pyramid.
You could agree with me on these takes, or perhaps you don’t. But these issues point to a much larger issue. And that’s the long-term vision of the club. It’s increasingly curious that the club is offloading assets or de-prioritizing them at best.
Does the club owe the public or the media anything? Not necessarily. But when it goes on record about a brand new facility or about its commitment to the USL in 2018 and then blatantly backs off, the alarms in all of our heads should be ringing. Something isn't right with Orlando City, and while we don’t what it is, what we do know is the soccer pyramid isn't being tended to but rather cut out piece by piece.