I am not sure there is anything more frustrating than waking up on a Saturday morning, way too early — even before the sun has risen — making coffee, sitting down to plan my footy watching and realizing that I get to watch a day of it. Now some of you may be asking how on earth can be frustrating? That is easy to answer, as none of the viewing will be watching the Lions in a preseason match.
Sure, there would be a little info sneaking out via Twitter and some media that was allowed to watch part of the first half, but none of that compares to watching it myself. I am getting to the point where I need an Orlando City fix.
In the meantime, I got my fill of English Premier League throughout the morning, actually looking forward to the Newcastle match to hear what the NBCSN pundits had to say have the latest addition to the squad, Miguel Almiron. Unfortunately, it looks like he will have to wait until at least Feb. 11 before he plays with the Magpies.
Now the next thing you will say, and I am sure your brain is already sending the words to your mouth, why do you care? I care because this is what world football is all about, folks, and there are so many parallels revolving around us that finally clicked for me today. They clicked, even though the final piece of the puzzle was seeing the new Lions play, which none of us has had the ability to do yet.
I was pondering what the current movements of players in and out of MLS could mean, not from a player or team perspective, but on MLS as an entity. In fact, this spreads out even further than that into the greater soccer identity of America.
Let’s take a quick look at where my mind went, from the highest level down. If you watched the USMNT match against Costa Rica, you certainly missed seeing some familiar names on the backs of the kits. This January camp was comprised of a much different group, a young group of players from the pool. Also surprising, this entire group of players was also entirely pulled from MLS rosters, the only pseudo exception is that we know that Zack Steffen will be heading off to England to join Manchester City, or more correctly the City Football Group this summer. If you think you will see Zack playing in the Manchester Derby anytime soon, I seriously doubt he will ever play for Pep Guardiola. More than likely, he will be loaned out to one of the CFG teams for development.
What you have seen in this January camp is a roster of hungry MLS “kids” who have performed well. It would appear that the new hierarchy at U.S. Soccer is actually being serious in fixing the player development process. So how does this affect MLS?
Until MLS is considered one of the greatest leagues in the world, player movement will be slightly skewed in that MLS currently brings in big names that may or may not be on the tail end of their career internationally (yes, feeding into the whole retirement league narrative) or are stars in the making in smaller leagues around the world who are on the cusp of showing off their talents and punching that ticket to Europe. MLS is slowly changing that perception, but it is going to take some time, and a track record of helping to produce quality players on the international stage. It is one thing to use your domestic league to help bolster your national team roster, it is a whole new level to have players from other countries want to play in your league to gain that international and playing experience to bring to their national team when called up. MLS is certainly making strides in that direction, and is starting to make the money needed to help attract players, but this will take some time as well.
Zooming in a bit more, this now gets my brain focused on Orlando City. With the exception of about 10-15 minutes, the Lions’ first pre-season match was closed door. A few bits and pieces snuck out, as well as some media pieces from the club:
Notice youth. Notice how much youth is being discussed and brought in and focused on. Just like the process of development that so many people have been screaming for at the national team level for years has finally happened, it is also happening at our club level. However, while other clubs are out spending millions bringing in international players, many are asking why isn’t Orlando City? I believe the logical answer to this question is that it will, but first, it must make the players want to come here. It is easy to pull in multi-million dollar players when you just won a league championship. It is not nearly as easy to bring in quality players when you just finished towards the bottom of the league, have trended down every season, are on your third coach, and have had fairly massive changeover in your front office. Those times are about to change.
I am confident that when we fans get our first few looks at the 2019 Lions in a few weeks, we are going to see a decidedly different team. Not just the names on the back of the kits, not just the formation and tactics, but the entire philosophy of the club, and the stepping stones for taking this club forward. Just like the the national team, the Lions are looking to start a new chapter, and we will be able to read the first chapter shortly.
Before your mind wanders, I am in no way comparing Orlando City to the USMNT in any way other than the shift in philosophy. Youth brings inexperience, but youth also brings excitement and, theoretically, a longer timescale from which to build a new dynasty. This is the endgame that everyone wants, players, fans, front office, investors, media, and myself. Bring on the kids, let’s see what they can do.