Following the 2017 season, Orlando City announced that its USL side, Orlando City B, would be going on hiatus for the 2018 season. Currently without a USL affiliate and possibly needing one next year, signs seem to be pointing to Saint Louis FC.
While OCB decided to sit out the 2018 USL season, the club remained adamant that the reserve side would return in 2019. That was confirmed recently by Orlando City GM Niki Budalic, who stated that the club would return in the USL’s new third division league, launching in 2019. He also stated that players who advance through OCB but aren’t quite ready for MLS would be loaned out to a “higher league,” indicating the second division USL. But to what team would these players be sent?
Usually, MLS clubs attempt to affiliate with a USL club nearby, which makes recalling a player much easier. However, that could be difficult in Florida. There is currently only one USL club in the state, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which might be hesitant to affiliate with Orlando City, a team they compete with for fans. Another option could be the Jacksonville Armada should they join the USL, but there has been no indication of that.
During this previous off-season, former OCB head coach Anthony Pulis joined Saint Louis FC in the same position. Soon after, he began acquiring players he previously coached, bringing on goalkeeper Jake Fenlason, midfielder Austin Martz, and forward Albert Dikwa. With these signings, Pulis, who played for Orlando City in the USL from 2012-14, created a connection between the two clubs. The addition of these out-of-contract players didn’t signal a future affiliation between the clubs, but proved that Pulis liked what he was forming in Orlando and clearly still has strong ties to the club.
The most telling sign that Orlando City and Saint Louis FC could be future affiliates is the loan of Tony Rocha. The short-term loan, lasting only nine days, includes a possible extension through mutual agreement and a right to recall at any time for Orlando City. The terms of the Rocha deal will be one that Orlando City will seek with any future affiliation.
While these two clubs seem to be a good match, any future affiliation likely depends on the employment of Pulis. There’s no doubt that the young coach is a major reason why Rocha is currently in Missouri. Without that connection, and maybe even with that connection, Orlando City would be hesitant to send players so far away. An alternative could be a re-affiliation with Louisville City, Orlando City’s original USL affiliate and still coached by former Lion James O’Connor.
Another factor could be how many MLS clubs put their USL teams in the second or third division. If a team like Atlanta United keeps Atlanta United 2 in the second division, they’ll have no need to affiliate with a team like Birmingham or Charleston, providing Orlando City with an affiliate much closer to home.
With OCB returning in the third division next year, Orlando City may need to find a USL affiliate for 2019. It’s still unknown exactly how the new setup will work for the club and for how long, but if the decision is to affiliate with a second division side, it could be with Saint Louis FC.