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Homegrown Signing Has Orlando City Headed in Right Direction

Orlando City signed its fifth homegrown player this week, showing the club is headed in the right direction.

Image courtesy of Orlando City SC

Earlier this week Orlando City signed former academy forward Benji Michel to a Homegrown contract. The club’s future success depends on its ability to sign more of these players.

With the club’s academy starting in 2012, Michel is just the fifth Lion to be given a Homegrown contract after Tommy Redding, Tyler Turner, Harrison Heath, and Mason Stajduhar. The only players to come out of the academy and sign for the first team prior to Michel in the MLS era were Stajduhar and Pierre Da Silva. This caused the club to make a change in their academy setup and the purpose behind Orlando City B recently.

Prior to 2018, Orlando City ran its own academy at the Seminole Soccer Complex in Sanford. From the 4-year-old “Little Lions” to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams, everything was controlled by the club. The results were futile as few players were making it through the system and providing talent for the first team.

The club decided to make a significant change by placing the academy at Montverde Academy, with a soccer program that has produced several college stars and professionals. While this may in part have been a cost-cutting measure, there’s no question that SIMA has been extremely productive in developing players.

The other major change was the intent of OCB. In the team’s first two seasons, OCB served as a reserve team, where first-team players could play minutes they weren’t seeing in MLS and guys coming back from injury could return to fitness. While this may have been beneficial to those players, it did little to help the development of young players. With OCB’s move down to the third division, the team will be largely filled with young academy graduates. Given that the team’s focus will be on development above all else, this should result in the club being able to produce much more talent for the first team.

While there’s skepticism about the investment from Orlando City’s investors, what we do know is that the club’s management is far from the wealthiest in the league. Flavio Augusto da Silva has said as much. With less wealth in ownership and a smaller market in Orlando, the club simply does not have the resources to compete with the growing major market teams like New York City FC, Atlanta United FC, and Los Angeles FC, all of which are backed by big populations and billionaire investors. That’s where the academy comes in.

As the New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas have proven, you can win in MLS if you have a strong academy that produces quality talent. The base of those clubs has been built around the young talent out of their academies. They can then fill in the pieces around those young players rather than building an entirely new team from scratch, which has become an annual tradition for the Lions.

While Orlando City has struggled to produce the players needed out of the academy to be competitive in MLS, the new academy structure has the Lions headed in the right direction. A player can join the academy as a child and work their way up through the system. When they reach the USSDA level, they will move to SIMA, a program that has proven they can produce professionals. If they’re prepared to be a professional, they’ll play for OCB as they continue their development until they’re ready for the first team.

It still remains to be seen what will happen to those players between OCB and the first team. Last year the club essentially had an unofficial relationship with Saint Louis FC, a team coached by former Lion and OCB Head Coach Anthony Pulis. That relationship could continue or the club could form an official partnership with a local USL Championship side such as the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which would make the travel much easier for the young players.

The signing of Michel is a big move for Orlando City as the club has struggled to sign players out of the academy. With the changes within the development structure and the hiring of Luiz Muzzi from FC Dallas, the club is headed in the right direction on that front. It’s only one signing, but bringing in Michel might be an indication that there may be brighter days ahead for the club.