Orlando City played its first game of 2022 in front of fans and media Saturday morning. While the starting lineup was mostly made up of first-team regulars, Head Coach Oscar Pareja also gave the club’s young players a look, including four former academy players and three MLS SuperDraft picks.
Known as a retirement league for much of its existence, MLS has made a push to get its clubs to invest in younger players over the past few years. Some teams have taken this suggestion to heart, promoting several players from their academies to the first team.
No team has invested more in its academy than FC Dallas. Several U.S. National Team players have come through the club’s academy, including Weston McKennie, Ricardo Pepi, and Kellyn Acosta. So it’s unsurprising that Pareja and Orlando City General Manager Luiz Muzzi, both formerly of FC Dallas, are giving the club’s young players a shot.
The current youth movement starts with 17-year-old center back Thomas Williams. The Titusville native previously played for the club’s second team, Orlando City B, and won the U-17 MLS Next Cup last year.
Williams started Saturday’s game against FC Dallas and played 85 minutes. Playing alongside Rodrigo Schlegel, Williams started off a little shaky, allowing an attacker behind him in the opening minutes, but settled down and had an impressive performance.
While Williams was the highlight of the young players, others followed in the second half. Fellow 17-year-old academy player Alex Freeman replaced Ruan at right back at halftime and 15-year-old center back Dominic Bell came on for Williams in the 85th minute. 18-year-old midfielder Wilfredo Rivera also came on as a last-minute sub for Sebas Mendez.
Additionally, the Lions used substitutes on multiple draft picks selected over the past two years. After 2021 draft picks Derek Dodson and Rio Hope-Gund were signed but not retained by the club, former Penn State defender Brandon Hackenberg is getting his shot. Hackenberg would’ve spent last season working for a spot on the team but decided to return to Penn State for one more season.
In addition to Hackenberg, the Lions also used two of their three 2022 picks in Jack Lynn and Nick Taylor. All three players did well against Dallas on Saturday, with Lynn and Taylor nearly helping Orlando City find an equalizer.
In the 63rd minute, Lynn found himself one-on-one with Dallas’ substitute goalkeeper. However, he was unable to lift the ball over the young opponent and Antonio Carerra got his foot to it for the save. Taylor sent a great free kick into the box in the 83rd minute, which was searching for an Orlando City head, but Carerra did well to come out and catch the cross.
While Muzzi and Pareja have shown that they have faith in the club’s younger players and want to integrate them into the team, the players know the different level of play they’re going up against.
“The youth game, I’m the biggest guy out there,” Williams said after the game. “When you step up to that pro level, everyone’s as big as you so you have to match their physicality.”
While the size and skill level increases as they make that step up to the senior level, Williams says the most important thing is to remain confident in your ability and continue to improve.
“Be confident,” Williams says about the key to success. “Obviously, I’m a younger guy, but keep that confidence and do my best.”
Since becoming head coach on Dec. 4, 2019, Pareja has implemented a culture on the team that challenges but champions younger players. It’s a culture that has carried down to the team’s veterans.
“They’re all hungry,” midfielder Joey DeZart said after the Dallas game. “They all want to learn. That’s huge. Wanting to come out there and us (the veterans) helping them. They’re brave. They’re not scared to make mistakes and keep on going and you see that on the field. Like Thomas (Williams) played great today. So I’m happy for all of them and I think they’re improving every day.”
“I appreciate the support from the senior guys,” Williams added. “Bringing me into the team and helping me learn the ranks.”
The newer players on the team join Michael Halliday, the longest-serving teenager on the team. Williams, Rivera, and Halliday came through the club’s academy, played for OCB, and have since signed professional contracts with the club. While Williams started and Rivera played the final minutes, Halliday didn’t appear.
Even if some of these young players aren’t on the senior roster this year, their time in Orlando might continue. After a year away, OCB is returning this season in the new MLS Pro Next third-division league. It’s a perfect spot for these players to continue developing for the country’s top division.
Orlando City has focused more on youth players under Muzzi and Pareja than they had since the club’s founding in 2010. It has resulted in games like Saturday, where several teenage prospects get a shot to show what they can do. Eventually, it could end up with the club developing players like their opponent.