In addition to an academy and senior team in USL Pro, Orlando City featured a U-23 team that played in the USL’s Premier Development League from 2012 to 2015. Following its final season, Orlando City U-23 was determined “redundant” and replaced with the club’s USL team, Orlando City B. The club’s new partnership with Montverde Academy has not only provided a new home for the academy, but also a new PDL team for the club, SIMA Àguilas, which will feature academy products and former Lions.
Lions in the PDL
When Phil Rawlins brought Orlando City to life in 2010, he had a grand vision that would result in a full club pyramid. Part of the pyramid was connecting the academy with the first team with a U-23 team that would play in the PDL. In 2012, the club purchased the Central Florida Kraze and renamed it Orlando City U-23. During its four years under the Orlando City umbrella, the U-23 side, which was made up of college players from around the country, enjoyed two playoff runs and two entries into the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
While the team didn’t feature many academy players, several on the U-23 side would later feature for the first team. These players included Jonathan Mendoza, Adama Mbengue, Harrison Heath, Oumar Diakhite, and Hadji Barry. Others, such as Kyle Fisher and Romario Williams, would find their way onto other MLS rosters in future years.
On Jan. 9, Orlando City announced that the club would be moving its academy from Seminole Soccer Complex in Sanford to the Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy (SIMA). Initially, housing the U-15, U-17, and U-19 teams, the partnership was later expanded to include the U-12, U-13, and U-14 teams, as well as the development academy headquarters.
At the time of the move, Orlando City CEO Alex Leitão stated, “This is an entirely new strategy designed to increase and grow the overall investment in our development academy while offering our younger players the best development opportunities and facilities.” Three months into the partnership, Leitão said he was pleased with the move, so much so that the club wanted to unite the entire development academy at Montverde.
A New Team in Central Florida
Prior to the 2017 PDL season, SIMA was granted entry into the league with the new team named SIMA Àguilas. Even prior to the partnership between SIMA and Orlando City being finalized, this new PDL squad had some deep connections to the MLS club, with two of its players having played within the Orlando City pyramid previously. While attending Saint Louis University, David Graydon was a member of the Orlando City U-23 team, and Dennis Zapata, who attended Florida Gulf Coast University, became one of the few Lions to graduate from the Orlando City academy and feature for the U-23s.
With the new partnership between SIMA and Orlando City, the SIMA Àguilas made for a perfect spot for the club’s academy graduates to play during the summer. For the club, it provides its players with the ability to return home to play during the PDL season under Mike Potempa who, alongside Bobby Murphy, helps to run the development academy. It also allows SIMA to fill out the roster with local players and a greater purpose, rather than simply local players with no connection to the academy.
Developing Future Lions
The biggest impact of SIMA Àguilas for Orlando City is developing the club’s academy graduates who have gone off to college. The team currently has 15 players on the roster that currently or formerly played in the Orlando City Development Academy, essentially making the Àguilas Orlando City’s U-23 team.
Six of the players that will take part this season are already well known to many Orlando City fans, as they appeared on the OCB team sheet while still in the academy. Raul Aguilera, David Loera, and David Norris spent the key years of their development in Orlando City’s academy, forming what is considered the club’s most talented graduating class. Joe Gallardo joined Orlando City’s academy for one year after spending previous seasons in the academy of Mexican club C.F. Monterrey and accompanied Pierre Da Silva as OCB’s skillful duo last season. Jordi Avila and Allen Seals proceeded through the academy behind this group, making the OCB team sheet against last season.
In addition to this talented group of Lions, SIMA Àguilas will also include nine other current and former Orlando City academy players who didn’t appear for OCB. These include Jaiden Fortune, Caleb Franke, Juan Hernandez, Nicholas O’Callaghan, Alejandro Pereira, Jordan Bender, and Mikael Martins, all of whom spent significant time in the club’s academy. Additionally, Rodrigo Almeida and Allasane Diouf recently joined the Orlando City Development Academy through the club’s affiliation with Montverde Academy.
Orlando City Connections
While the 15 players that came through from the Orlando City academy are more than enough to link the SIMA Àguilas to the Lions, there are some additional connections as well. As previously mentioned, David Graydon spent a couple of years playing for Orlando City’s PDL team during the club’s USL Pro era. The 2018 Àguilas will also feature Youmeni Jules, the Cameroonian defender who, along with forward Albert Dikwa, joined OCB from Montverde Academy for the 2017 USL season, making six appearances for the young Lions.
MLS teams are continually trying to find the right way to connect their academies to the first team. Most clubs have decided to solely field a USL team, while the Portland Timbers Colorado Rapids, and New York Red Bulls have included a U-23 side. Orlando City did away with its U-23 team in 2015, but has brought back that link between the academy and professional ranks by having its players join the SIMA Àguilas. When Orlando City B returns in 2019, the club will have a full structure, from U-4 to the first team in MLS.
The SIMA Àguilas may not be wearing the same logo you see in the academy and first team, but they will very much be a part of the club in 2018. With the team nearby and all games being streamed online, Orlando City fans are provided with yet another part of the club to support.
The SIMA Àguilas’ first game of the 2018 season will be on May 9 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, where they’ll host the Jacksonville Armada, who beat The Villages SC on Sunday. The Armada squad includes former academy product Michael Melvin and Mechack Jerome, who played with the Orlando City first team in 2011 and 2012. The team’s first PDL game will commence on May 12 when it hosts Weston FC at Montverde Academy.
The Mane Land will keep you up-to-date all summer long on the progress of the SIMA Àguilas and Orlando City’s academy products.