Orlando City is at a bit of a developmental impasse in 2018. With the club’s USL side, Orlando City B, temporarily dormant as the club reviews its options for 2019 and beyond, there has to be a shift in how the coaching staff handles the development of its young professionals in the meantime. While Head Coach Jason Kreis has preached competition throughout preseason so far and championed the idea that everyone will be provided an opportunity to earn MLS minutes, inevitably some players will fall to the bottom of the depth chart or fail to break into the rotation.
In the long term, OCB will likely find a home in a league — be it USL’s new division three or another landing spot. But for this year, there’s a tenuous gap. Keeping the youngsters with the first team keeps them in an MLS environment, but it also denies them of any playing time. Kreis mentioned during Media Day last week that the club is in discussions for a temporary affiliation with a USL club, similar to the organizational structure Orlando had in 2015 with Louisville City FC, but which club that ends up being will have an impact — even a small one — on the future of the players loaned down.
Ideally, the affiliate would be close by and, at the very least, in the Southeast. Other MLS teams have had to reach halfway across the continent (New York City FC allied themselves with San Antonio FC last year) and that’s less than ideal should Orlando want to recall them. But for the right circumstances, it might have to do. With USL’s highly divided scheduling, travel in the East is also less of a strain and would mean that no matter when City would want a recall, the loanees would likely be nearby.
Orlando has built an impressive stable of central midfielders with Yoshimar Yotun, Will Johnson, Cristian Higuita, Uri Rosell, Dillon Powers, Cam Lindley, and Tony Rocha all available. So much depth, however, means that at least three will likely be pushed down the depth chart and see a lot of the bench in 2018 — and that’s if Kreis deploys a formation that utilizes three central midfielders.
Highly touted prospect Pierre Da Silva could also find himself on the outside looking in after just one minute in MLS last season. With the introduction of Mohamed El-Munir, PC could also find himself at the bottom of a talented depth chart at left back and one of Earl Edwards Jr. and Adam Grinwis will likely be in a similar position.
That means that a talented player or three will be in need of playing time and Orlando needs to find opportunities for them. Luckily, quite a few of these players have proven themselves in the USL already and would be welcome additions to most sides. Others are top college prospects that could provide an infusion of new talent into the professional ranks. It remains to be seen how many of Orlando’s young players the club will be willing to relinquish without full control over their development, but playing time is playing time.
Here are five likely candidates to be Orlando’s USL partner in 2018:
The Battery have long been considered a nemesis of Orlando City’s since the USL days, but they find themselves without an MLS affiliate after Atlanta United pulled out to create its own USL team, the creatively named Atlanta United 2. The Battery have the positive of being relatively close to Orlando as far as USL teams go, a need for MLS talent (Charleston finished second in the Eastern Conference last year utilizing Atlanta’s players), and they could use another infusion of young blood.
The possibility to add Da Silva to the mix will be enticing for most USL squads and with the potential prospect of Lindley or attacking midfielder Richie Laryea, teams will be landing quality starters. That will likely be important for the Battery, who will be looking to augment their already strong squad and unlikely to take on young projects.
The USL expansion club is in a unique situation. With MLS on the horizon, it might behoove the Tennessee side to focus on developing its own young players with an eye to preparing them for that inevitable jump. But in a similar situation, Orlando City’s 2014 season saw quite a few MLS loans down to the USL side only months before the Lions made the MLS move. Cobi Span (from FC Dallas) and Ian Christianson (from the New York Red Bulls) joined a cast of future MLS players and made some significant contributions over the course of the season with Span being a near-regular.
Whether or not Nashville is set to make the jump in 2019 or later, a short-term loan agreement could benefit both sides. The Tennesseans have built around youth, including former OCB player Michael Cox, and would provide a clean slate for loaned players to compete for minutes. An identity still needs to be defined, but there are plenty of opportunities for playing time on the banks of the Cumberland River. For Orlando, however, there’s a bit of uncertainty. There would likely be no guarantees for playing time and there is little to go on when it comes to positive club culture and a nurturing environment.
Louisville City FC
Louisville might have the least incentive to bring in MLS players unless they absolutely have to. After all, they won last season’s USL cup without any help from the top division. But they are Orlando’s former affiliate and there are still some connections with the Louisville ownership and Head Coach James O’Connor.
One of the positives of loaning players to Louisville is that there is already an established winning culture and environment. They would be playing with the best of the best in the USL and aiming for championships. But it will take a lot of skill to break into the rotation and O’Connor’s system is not similar to Kreis’ system. For players like Da Silva, where minutes in general might be more important than where he’s at on the field and what he’s being asked to do, it might be the right fit. For players like Lindley who haven’t spent a lot of time in Orlando or in Kreis’ training sessions, perhaps it’s best to keep him closer to home.
It’s a bit of a different story for Louisville’s rivals on the other side of the Ohio River. FCC has received plaudits for the fan atmosphere and the team’s Cinderella run in the U.S. Open Cup, but the fact of the matter is that the side struggled in the league. They hung on to their playoff place — but were threatened by OCB into the last weeks of the season — and then flamed out once they got there. If Cincy wants to compete with one of its main rivals in Louisville while still rotating for the Open Cup, they could use an influx of talent.
Tampa Bay Rowdies
In some ways, it’s the ideal situation. In others, it’s unimaginable. Just a short drive down I-4, players would be ready for recall whenever possible, much like when Orlando City B was technically housed in Melbourne. Players could still live in Orlando, which takes away the added strain of adjusting to a new city for a young professional.
The Rowdies were competitive in their first season in USL and would provide a positive, competitive environment to foster the growth of the young players. But it would also mean watching Orlando’s prospects in green and gold hoops and — at times — cheering on the team down the road. With experienced professionals from top leagues like Marcel Schafer and Joe Cole, there are role models in St. Pete that City’s youngsters can learn from. It remains to be seen whether Orlando and Tampa would be willing to engage in a formal partnership, even a short-term affiliation, but it might be the best-case scenario for the Lions.