[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original form to include information about Wilfredo Rivera.]
Last year, Orlando City announced the withdrawal of the team’s developmental side, Orlando City B, from USL League One. The presumption was that the team would be joining a new MLS reserve league in 2021. However, the global pandemic and MLS collective bargaining agreement negotiations make it more likely that the reserve league will start in 2022, putting the club in a difficult position.
Minnesota United’s new development structure had all but confirmed the new reserve league and the club has repeatedly proven its new commitment to youth development. Orlando was also joined in withdrawing from USL League One by the Portland Timbers and Philadelphia Union.
The plans for a reserve league appeared to be on track until the global pandemic hit and put everything into question. The loss of revenue in 2020, and likely during 2021, forced MLS to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement with the players. After weeks of negotiating and threatening a lockout, the two sides finally agreed to a deal.
The length of the negotiations forced the league to push back the start of the preseason and regular season. These factors, along with the loss of revenue last year, make it seem likely any new reserve league will be pushed back until 2022, although there hasn’t been any official announcement either way.
Moving the reserve league back a year means that Orlando City and its top youth players will have to make some difficult decisions. Some young players, like Thomas Williams and Wilfredo Rivera, are young enough to rejoin the club’s academy, which tops out at the U-19 level. Rivera has already committed to a college season (h/t @DataBull).
Others, like Raul Aguilera and Moises Tablante, will need to find a place to play and continue to develop.
For Aguilera and Tablante, the most likely option would be to go out on loan to a USL Championship side. Both players are good enough for that league, but are not quite at the MLS level yet. The same will likely go for players like Mason Stajduhar and Jordan Bender, who are on the first-team roster but will likely not see many minutes.
The delay could also change the decision making of some of the club’s top prospects. After playing for OCB in 2020, Mason Lamb has already joined Rollins College for its spring season. That decision was made for him when the second-division college delayed its season to the spring and OCB dropped out of USL League One.
Other players who still have NCAA eligibility will have to make a similar decision. If OCB were to play in 2021, those players might have stayed with the club as it would be the better way to reach the first team. But if OCB stays off the field in 2021, they might decide to attend college for at least a year to gain competitive minutes.
Sending the players off to play in college isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Aguilera and David Loera both went to college after graduating from the academy and have progressed well. But the club would prefer to have its best young players training around the first team and playing under the watchful eyes of the first-team coaching staff.
Possibly the biggest impact will be on some of the young first-team players. Last year, Stajduhar, Bender, and Joey DeZart all played games with OCB to gain valuable minutes. It was an easy loan, as OCB trains at the same location as the first team and plays its home games next door at Osceola County Stadium. To allow those players to gain minutes this year, the club will likely have to send them far away from the first team.
Sending these players out on loan creates multiple potential problems. They won’t be training with the first team and in Oscar Pareja’s system. There’s also no guarantee that they’ll play significant minutes while out on loan. If Orlando City suffers an injury or otherwise needs those players back, they would have to travel a greater distance, possibly requiring recovery or quarantine time that could put their availability into question.
OCB has been a valuable asset for Orlando City, especially with the club focusing more than ever on youth development. The team looked to head into 2021 in a new reserve league, but the global pandemic and lengthy CBA negotiations might push that league back a year. It could make for some tough decision-making by Orlando City and its top Homegrown prospects.