The signing of Homegrown Player Thomas Williams was another step towards building an academy pipeline for Orlando City. The 16-year-old defender is the 11th Homegrown Player in club history — the eighth on the active roster — and joins the first team with plenty of promise. Orlando may not be FC Dallas or the Philadelphia Union, but the academy is producing Homegrown Players.
While good, these players need to start making an impact on the first team. The #PlayYourKids movement has yet to fully manifest itself in the City Beautiful, but one of its pioneers is starting to change that.
Oscar Pareja, who led Dallas when its academy started to thrive, has slowly given more time to young players. Homegrown Player Benji Michel has become a key figure for Orlando under Pareja and several non-academy youngsters such as Andres Perea and João Moutinho have excelled in Pareja’s system as well.
With a congested back half of the 2021 schedule featuring plenty of multi-game weeks and a potential second competition with the Leagues Cup, this might be the year Orlando finally opens up its fountain of youth.
Pareja dipped into the youth reserves by giving Michael Halliday his professional debut against the New York Red Bulls right before the international break and the 18-year-old looked solid in that outing. Both Halliday and the newly signed Williams could be the biggest contributions out of the academy when Orlando must rotate its roster this summer.
Antonio Carlos, Robin Jansson, and Rodrigo Schlegel are the unquestioned first options at center back and Kyle Smith can fill in there as part of a back three as well. But it will be key to rest them throughout the season for the team to compete for trophies. Rookie Rio Hope-Gund is currently the fourth choice at center back, but it’s plausible Williams could break into a few game day squads or earn a start or two. As for Halliday, injuries to Ruan and Moutinho have already given him a start and he has a clear opportunity to play considering Smith is the only other backup fullback.
A lot of these opportunities could be snatched up by recent signings though. Within the past year, Orlando opted to bring in Alexander Alvarado and Silvester van der Water as rotation wingers instead of giving more playing time to Jordan Bender, who played one half last season and is now on loan in the USL Championship with the Charlotte Independence. There’s a good chance that’s the right course of action both for competing right now and giving Bender more consistent playing time, but it’s undeniably frustrating seeing promising Homegrown Players passed over.
It’s really the balance a lot of MLS teams are trying to find as they balance winning with youth development. That’s a bit of a false dichotomy, but league-wide it often comes down to this. Even Dallas, the king of youth development in the U.S, has brought in high-priced veterans like Franco Jara instead of giving young players like Ricardo Pepi an extended run of games. Obviously, winning should come first for any club, especially in a league like MLS where parity reigns supreme. But that shouldn’t come entirely at the expense of youth development.
There will be opportunities to give youth academy players minutes this season and Pareja will need to take advantage of it. The best way to build depth in a salary cap league is by developing academy players into key players for the first team, and the best way to do that is to give them minutes. I’m not suggesting that a Homegrown Player be in every starting XI, but the time has come for Orlando to start testing its academy prospects to see if they’re ready to turn into key components of the first team.