This year, Orlando City B relaunched with a new objective. While previous teams were primarily made up of first team players not receiving playing time and USL veterans, this year’s team has several developmental academy graduates. This is a big improvement and will help the club produce Homegrown talent. But there’s one key aspect that still must change.
When players graduate from the Orlando City development academy, they’ll have a choice. They can either turn professional and sign for OCB or attend college. Choosing the professional route will usually mean foregoing college and picking soccer as a future career.
Previously, soccer was like other sports in the United States. The best high school players would receive scholarships to play in college and the best of them would turn professional. The increase in development academies has changed the landscape of player development dramatically. Today, there is a direct path between an academy and a professional team in MLS.
For young players to get the most out of their ability, college should be a last chance. Those who are able to turn professional right out of the academy should do so. There are multiple reasons for this.
A soccer player’s prime development years are the teenage years. Those years need to be spent harnessing and developing the abilities of the player. College soccer is about winning rather than development. The coaches’ primary objective is to win games. In a developmental team, such as OCB, the most important aspect is the development of the Homegrown Players.
Another important reason why attending college is often detrimental to a player’s development is that they often leave the school at 21 or 22 years of age. In terms of soccer, that’s way too late to be turning professional. Players who are able should be turning professional at 18 or 19 at the latest. This provides the time for them to continue developing and becoming key members of the first team by 22 or 23.
A third option to the college or professional debate is an academy contract. Once a player turns professional, he is no longer able to play college soccer. However, teams are allowed to sign players to USL academy contracts. This allows them to play for a professional team before making their final decision. Orlando City has signed several players to academy contracts, including David Loera, David Norris, Jack McCloskey, and Raul Aguilera.
This year, central defender Nathan Simeon signed an academy contract with OCB. He went on to start the first 15 games for OCB this season, playing every minute. Last month, Simeon decided to attend the University of San Francisco. It ended his OCB tenure and put his professional goals on hold.
It’s been a tough year for OCB but the team has had a few bright spots. Some of the academy products have shown improvement and appear to be players who can contribute for the first team in the future. Simeon is most definitely one of those players. He has been arguably the best defender this season for the Young Lions. As can be expected with a teenager during his first professional season, Simeon showed signs of rust at first. But he grew into his role and quickly became the most dependable defender on the team.
The fact that a player as talented as Simeon chose to attend college rather than staying with the club is a troubling sign. His development into a professional player is likely to be hindered by this decision. There are many advantages to attending college for a young person but that shouldn’t be the primary concern of the club. A goal of the club should be to develop talent for the first team.
Orlando City Executive Director of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi would certainly prefer these players to remain within the club. An example of this is his former club, FC Dallas. The Texas-based side has done very well keeping players within its system. North Texas SC, the club’s developmental team, is made up almost completely of Homegrown Players who have chosen to turn professional rather than attend college.
While Orlando City has yet to produce the quality of young players that fans would hope, there is still tremendous talent. In addition to Simeon, Moises Tablante, Austin Amer, and Jordan Bender are players who have shown they may be with the first team in the coming years. As the academy continues to age and improve, a greater quantity of players will be forced to make that decision.
The goal of Orlando City should be to end up like FC Dallas or the New York Red Bulls. Those teams have developed so much talent that they can field an entire first team of Homegrown Players if need be. In order for that to happen, the club must convince its players that staying within the club is best for their development.