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Orlando City’s GM Hints at Strategy to Develop Players in 2019

Niki Budalic told ESPN that OCB will return in the new USL third division in 2019, which shows how the club will develop its prospects.

ESPN published an article by soccer writer Jeff Carlisle last week that took a look at MLS reserve teams as the USL readies to launch its new third division league in 2019. Carlisle spoke with Orlando City General Manager Niki Budalic for the piece, which unveiled the club’s development plans moving forward.

In the story, Budalic told Carlisle that Orlando City B, which played the 2016 and 2017 seasons in the USL before going on hiatus for this season, would return in 2019 in the new USL third division.

The form that the development pipeline takes for a team remains fluid. Budalic said that Orlando City will reconstitute its reserve team next year, but in USL Division III. Budalic said the lower average age of players in the league -- between 19 and 22 -- would allow the reserve team to be more closely aligned with its academy. Players that progress through that team will then be loaned out to higher-level leagues.

While this news has been widely expected, Budalic also stated that players that make their way through OCB and are not ready for MLS will be loaned out to a “higher league.” In the American soccer pyramid, that almost certainly means the USL.

Orlando City will not field a second-division team in 2019, which means that players will be heading to another club to continue their development before hopefully being ready for the MLS side. But where will that team be?

While most MLS clubs without second teams in the USL have affiliations with other clubs, Orlando City has yet to come to such an agreement. The Tampa Bay Rowdies seem to have failed in their push for MLS and the NASL appears to have seen its final days. The Jacksonville Armada is currently playing in the fourth division NPSL, but could certainly make the jump to the USL in 2019, as multiple MLS second teams will likely drop to the third division. This would provide the Lions with a choice of two nearby USL teams to affiliate with for players that have advanced beyond OCB but aren’t quite ready for the first team.

The primary reason Budalic gave for the move to the third division is that, while the average age of USL second-division players is between 21 and 23, most players in the third division will be between 19 and 21. Given that OCB is a link between the academy and the first team, most of the team’s players should be around these ages.

The two questions that have yet to be answered, but will have to be at some point, are:

  1. What is to be done with the first-team players not seeing minutes or those returning from injury?
  2. At what age should a player be released from the development system?

The level of the third division will not be as good as the current USL, so club officials must make the decision of whether they want first-team players on loan at another club or playing at a slightly lower level. For injured players, playing at OCB shouldn’t be much of a concern, as most of those players are simply looking to regain fitness.

The other decision Orlando City will have to make is in regards to its development system in general. Many clubs around the world will consider a player a prospect up until a certain age, often 23 years old, but sometimes younger. If a player is 21 or 22 years of age and has advanced past the level of OCB, the club must decide whether or not it’s worth continuing to develop the player.

While having OCB in the third division and loaning players out in the second division will be the club’s strategy for 2019, that’s something that could change in the relatively near future. The American soccer pyramid is a rapidly changing structure and MLS clubs continue to test what works best for them.

A major reason why having a second-division team works for the New York Red Bulls but not Orlando City is that the Red Bulls have been much better at turning out a larger number of top talents than the Lions. If the Orlando City academy advances to a point where it is producing a large number of MLS-caliber players, it may need to revisit its development strategy. With the year-by-year growth of the league, MLS clubs may be wealthy enough by that time to field a second- and third-division team.

The ever-changing MLS development structure will see a new change in 2019 with the addition of the USL’s third-division league, which, according to Budalic, will include the return of OCB. The new league and season will launch a new player development strategy by the club, which is looking to find the best way to develop young talent for the first team. It’s the culmination of a re-evaluation by the club and we’ll see how it works out in the coming years.