Whether it’s a Homegrown signing or a Major League Soccer SuperDraft selection, not everyone enters the league ready for the first division. Orlando City’s experience has shown that for some players, the United Soccer League is the right path. The Lions have also proven that some of these seemingly less significant signings can have huge future returns. There are three ways that a player might use the lower league to reach the top division. Some enter the country by joining the league, while others join out of college or are cut by MLS teams.
Players develop at different rates, which make their destinations differ. While some become young draft picks or Homegrown signings, others need more time through college and/or the lower leagues. A high draft pick may seem like the better player at 18 but it may be the opposite by the time they turn 23.
Even before Orlando City joined MLS in 2015, it showed that the USL can provide a successful path directly into the league. The 2011 USL Pro double-winning team featured multiple players that would go onto play in MLS. Four players, Mechack Jerome, Yordany Alvarez, Lawrence Olum, and Lewis Neal became MLS regulars within a year or two. Each of those players began their American careers in the third division, having not found opportunities in MLS. Playing in Orlando provided the chance to be seen and resulted in successful MLS tenures.
When Orlando City launched its second team in 2016, it signed two players from the Austin Aztex that found the USL as a saving grace. Mikey Ambrose came up through the FC Dallas Academy before attending the University of Maryland. Deciding to leave school following his junior season, the defender opted to sign with the USL’s Aztex instead of entering the MLS SuperDraft and he later joined Orlando City B. After less than a season with OCB, Ambrose was signed to the first team, recording regular minutes and is now playing regularly with the defending MLS Cup champions, Atlanta United FC.
The other player acquired from the Aztex was midfielder Tony Rocha, though his path featured different circumstances. After leaving the University of Tulsa, Rocha was selected in the fourth round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Sporting Kansas City. His release saw him land in Austin and subsequently with OCB. During his first season with the team, he too was signed to the first team.
Under former Louisville City FC head coach James O’Connor, the Lions have again become a landing spot for former USL players. Last season it was former Saint Louis FC goalkeeper Adam Grinwis, who gained five MLS starts due to struggles by Joe Bendik and Earl Edwards Jr. This off-season, the Lions signed goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh and defender Kyle Smith, both of whom played under O’Connor in the USL.
While it can be disappointing to go to the USL when dreaming of MLS, it may be the beginning of a long career in the top flight. Orlando City has proven that for some players, that’s the right path to take. For the club, it’s been proven that not all lower division signings are inferior players and the right ones could be mainstays in the first team for years to come.