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Orlando City Should Embrace a “Play Your Kids” Philosophy

With another rebuild likely in progress, Orlando City should focus on youth rather than veterans.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Since joining MLS in 2015, Orlando City has been caught in a never-ending cycle of rebuilds. The club hires a head coach, which results in the construction of a new roster. That coach lasts approximately a year and a half before being fired. When the new coach is hired, the team goes through yet another rebuild. At some point, Orlando City needs to stop this continual rebuilding. But how can that be done?

A major issue with Orlando City is that there has never even been a single person in charge for an extended period of time. Paul McDonough was the team’s first general manager, taking on the role in 2014 — the team’s last in the USL. He resigned after the 2015 season when the club hired Armando Carneiro as chief soccer officer from SL Benfica. That appointment lasted just a few weeks before he left for personal reasons. The next man to take up the position was Phil Rawlins. Niki Budalic learned the role under Rawlins before taking over full time in 2017. He was fired after the club’s historically bad 2018 campaign.

Heading into the 2019 season, Orlando City made the first logical hire to lead its soccer operations since McDonough. The club brought in Luiz Muzzi from FC Dallas, a club that has seen success building from within its academy. This needs to be the blueprint for Orlando City going forward, and it’s something that Muzzi himself has discussed.

I have a background in working with academies not only here and Brazil. Yeah, we need to get more Homegrowns. We need to make those guys in the academy feel like they are Orlando City. I heard one or two guys from two or three years ago saying, ‘Ah, I don’t want to play for Orlando City,” after having been through the whole academy process. That cannot happen. That can’t happen unless you’re going to Europe and you have this great opportunity, and all that. But if you’re here and you’re saying you don’t want to come back, you should want to come back. Why? Because we should be able to provide something good here and we should be able to provide a path for those guys. I want to have this guy here for 10 years. The goal should be we get this guy in, he contributes, he plays, and then he goes to the next step. And then we get the next one coming in.

When the club first entered MLS, the signing of Kaká was of great importance. The club was attempting to gain a stronger presence in the area and a global superstar captured people’s attention. Today, Orlando City is well-known and well-supported within the community. There is no longer the need to bring in an older star to gather people’s interest. At this point, only consistency and winning will fill the stadium.

When a team is built by bringing in outside talent, that roster will usually be older and change dramatically when a coaching change occurs. Most of those players have reached their full potential and have a certain skill set. This might cause the new coach to get rid of much of the roster and bring in those that fit within their system.

This is a big problem when you continually change coaches. Orlando City will have its fourth coach in six seasons for the 2020 season. Each time a new coach has taken over, there’s been a system change, resulting in several personnel changes. This causes the team to start over from scratch and more frustration grows from fans.

Orlando City has not done well in developing its own talent. It’s had several official Homegrown Players but only two have spent meaningful time in the club’s academy: Mason Stajduhar and Benji Michel. While these players, along with other youngsters like Santiago Patiño and Kamal Miller, are a good start, there needs to be more young talent in the team. This allows the club to keep a greater number of their players instead of gutting the roster and starting over every year and a half.

This won’t be a process that popular with everyone. The team will likely struggle for a year or two with such a young roster. Some fans will be frustrated by results and want changes. But this is a better option than having a roster full of older players and seeing similar results.

Eventually, the plan should be to build the core of the team from the academy. Players will grow up within the club’s system, play for OCB, and then join the first team. Unfortunately, the club isn’t at the point where it can do that yet. In the meantime, it should build a young team that has the potential to stay together for an extended period of time. At least this presents the appearance of progress.