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USL Academy’s Impact On Orlando City

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Last week brought the news that the United Soccer League was continuing its restructure, unveiling plans to create a fourth competition with the introduction of the USL Academy Cup later in the year, the organization’s first formal foray into academy soccer. Having moved the entire academy out to Montverde and with the imminent relaunch of Orlando City B, where does both the restructure and the new Academy Cup leave Orlando City?

It’s no secret that the soccer landscape in America has been far from simple to follow. A convoluted web of separate, yet sometimes equal, leagues have come in and out of existence with varying success. Within the last couple of years, the USL ran parallel with the North American Soccer League, both holding second division status in 2017 as sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation.

This was after the USL was a third tier league even as recently as when OCB was a member in 2016. Since then, a dispute with the USSF forced the NASL into hiatus, where it still remains, while MLS ended its dedicated MLS Reserve league back in 2014, instead requiring teams to enter their reserve teams into the USL or to affiliate with an existing USL team, like Orlando did with Louisville City in 2015.

To add to the matter, a further new third division, the National Independent Soccer Association, has put forward intentions to begin play in August this year. Teams have not been immune to adding to the confusion either, with countless going on hiatus, changing league affiliation, relocating, or folding altogether. In short, there hasn’t been much by way of stability and, as a result, it has proven difficult to properly provide a clear, concise, and reliable pathway from the youth to the professional level.

As of 2019, the USL has created three leagues: USL Championship (USLC), USL League One (USL1), and USL League Two (USL2).

  • USLC is simply a rebranded USL, a thriving league that is now the sole second division in U.S. soccer and currently contains 36 teams.
  • USL1 is a brand new, fully professional third division that technically contains 12 teams, although only 10 are set to contest the inaugural season beginning later this month, with the newly reformed OCB being one of them. It is the lowest level of professional soccer in the country.
  • USL2, unofficially a fourth division, as USSF does not recognize formal levels below the third tier, is now what was formerly known as the Premier Development League. The highest level amateur league was a regular landing spot for elite collegiate talent prior to their MLS draft eligibility. It sits roughly equal to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), although the NPSL has no age restrictions, unlike the USL2.

When the USL originally launched the reformat, it marketed USL2 as #Path2Pro, but with the new USL Academy announcement, it appears the league already has plans to extend that vision even further. It should be applauded that the USL continues to take such a significant hands-on role in the nation’s youth development. As its partnership with MLS enters its seventh season, 21 of MLS’ 24 teams have USL ties. Twelve teams operate their own reserve sides (nine in USLC and three in USL1), while nine have affiliate agreements, including two with so-called “hybrid” deals (eight in USLC and one in USL1).

Fielding reserve teams in professional leagues is nothing new. In Spain, for example, reserve sides compete in the same league system, although they are not eligible for promotion to the same division as their parent club, nor can they compete in the Copa del Rey. But other countries, such as England, continue to run dedicated and separate reserve leagues, with the English system running a two-tier system across two age groups.

The USL therefore currently sits in an unusual middle ground as an American hybrid of both systems (minus the promotion/relegation, obviously). The biggest teams, like the hugely successful New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers systems, not only have a reserve side capable of challenging in the USLC like a La Liga reserve team, but they also run U-23 teams in the amateur USL2 league for players too old to be in academies but not quite at the level of the USLC.

Meanwhile, teams like Orlando City (along with Toronto and FC Dallas) have essentially condensed both of those levels into one, and will field their U-23/reserve hybrid team in the USL1. Orlando folded its U-23 side in 2015 in lieu of OCB’s creation, with the team initially entering what is now the USLC before the hiatus.

The new OCB squad has an average age of just over 20, with the oldest, Evan John, having just turned 24 earlier this year. Coupled with new Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi’s impeccable record of Homegrown Players with Dallas, there’s hope the latest move to USL1 will lay the groundwork for a similar set of results in Central Florida in the future.

FC Dallas’ 2–1 win over Colorado at the weekend saw the Texas team start five Homegrown Players. Orlando City B’s success will not be measured by the final table standings, but by how many players it manages to develop for the senior MLS side, a process that has already started with the likes of OCB midfielder and academy product Jordan Bender already seeing senior minutes in the Orlando City Invitational during the preseason.

Where the Academy Cup Fits In

The move to create the USL Academy Cup seems like the next logical step in formalizing the USL’s vision for soccer infrastructure, giving the opportunity for all its member clubs to host their own academies and bring a level of continuity to the development ladder. It’s not that academy programs don’t already exist. Many sides already have U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA) or Elite Club National League (ECNL) teams. Indeed, there is a massive surplus with DAs currently boasting 197 clubs scattered across the country, while ECNL lists 94.

The USL’s issue is the lack of alignment. Many of those teams do not have a direct link to professional sides and there are plenty of USL teams across all three levels that currently have no youth setup whatsoever. Only 32 of the USL’s 118 clubs currently have teams competing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and a only 10 have teams that compete in other competitions. Meanwhile, a side like Louisville City, which is coming off the defense of its USL title still has no youth program at all.

The USL’s intention, therefore, is not to eliminate those academies but instead to realign them by getting pro teams to engage with community clubs in their shared mission of developing professional players locally and providing a realistic vision of a path to pro soccer. Whether it be by absorbing them into their professional brand, creating formal affiliations, or pooling regional talent in Centers of Excellence, this is what the USL is aiming for.

In theory, having a collective approach with the support of a professional team has very little downside, as pro teams help offset costs. This approach also grows the potential of selling leagues, increases local fan engagement, and helps to accelerate those teams’ timelines that haven’t been able to write a blank check to fully fund a youth program, top to bottom.

Orlando City already has academy sides though, so how does this help OCSC? Well, it does little to affect the OCSC pipeline on a macro level in comparison to other clubs that have no existing academy. However, it could potentially extend the team’s reach and do a better job at identifying local talent earlier and providing these players with better facilities and coaching. What’s more appealing is the competition itself, even in its soft launch.

Initially, the USL Academy Cup looks similar to what the U.S. Open Cup is to professional sides and mirrors what MLS does with the Generation Adidas Cup. Spread across two age groups, it brings academies from the clubs across all three levels of the USL into one tournament.

The U-17s will compete in two regional qualifiers split between the Eastern and Western Conference. Regional results will determine seeding and placement ahead of the national event in May.

The U-13 age group will just compete at the national events. USL Senior Director of Youth Development Liam O’Connell stressed that the USL doesn’t want to cull existing competitions and monopolize the youth market. The competition will merely help flesh out the calendar with an elite competition while keeping costs as low as possible, hence the U-13s not having to go through regional qualifiers. Targeting two key pre-professional age groups, and under the guise of the USL and its professional partners, the competition has the potential to reinforce ideals and aspirations for players hoping to make it in professional soccer without moving abroad.

It might all seem like a pipe dream right now and, frankly, the scale is vast, with the individual nuances of each region, club, or even player far too complex to examine individually. Nor is there any way of predicting the impact the new competition will have both in its debut year and down the road. But in the simplest of terms, it’s a step or two in the right direction for Orlando City and soccer in this country.

Orlando City B

Orlando City B vs. Philadelphia Union II: Final Score 1-1 as OCB Draws, Drops Shootout

OCB earned a oad draw with Philadelphia Union II but fell 7-6 in penalties, picking up one point.

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Image courtesy of Orlando City B

Orlando City B (1-1-2, 6 points) drew Philadelphia Union II (2-0-2, 9 points) at Subaru Park 1-1 in Chester, PA this afternoon. Sal Olivas gave the hosts the lead in the 11th minute, but Wilfredo Rivera equalized less than 20 minutes later. Philadelphia dominated the second half, but OCB was able to keep the hosts out, finishing with a road draw despite not recording any second-half shots. The game went into penalties, where Union II won the extra point in the MLS NEXT Pro standings in sudden death by a 7-6 score.

OCB Head Coach Manuel Goldberg made four changes to the team that lost 2-0 to Inter Miami II on April 2. Thomas Williams, Zakaria Taifi, Colin Guske, and Shak Mohammed entered the lineup for Nabi Kibunguchy, Manuel Cocca, Jeorgio Kocevski, and Jack Lynn. Of the four regular starters taken out of the lineup, only Cocca was included on the bench.

The back line in front of goalkeeper Javier Otero was Alex Freeman, Abdi Salim, Williams, and Taifi. While Guske returned to the lineup for the first time since March 22, the rest of the midfield remained the same, including Imanol Almaguer, Rivera, Jhon Solis, and Yutaro Tsukada. Lynn is likely with the first team tomorrow night, so Mohammed got the start up top.

This was a game of two halves for the Young Lions. In the first 45 minutes, they were strong on the attack, creating problems for Philadelphia. However, they spent the entire second half on their heels, trying to keep the opposition from taking another lead. They were successful, as Union II struggled to hit the target, enabling OCB to bring home a point.

OCB nearly made a mess of its early possession when Williams turned the ball over within the first two minutes. However, Philadelphia was unable to create anything from winning the ball in the Young Lions’ third of the field, ultimately playing it back into their own half.

In the third minute, OCB had the first shot of the game and it was from a familiar source. Tsukada has been problematic on the left for teams around the league early this season and used some nifty footwork to create space. However, his shot was right to Union II goalkeeper Andrew Rick, who made an easy stop.

The Young Lions created another good chance in the eighth minute when Rivera sent Freeman forward. The right back got behind Philadelphia’s back line and got a shot off from the right of the goal, forcing Rick to block the ball out of play for the game’s first corner kick. Rivera’s ensuing set piece to the back post found the head of Solis, who redirected the ball on target. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get much on it, enabling Frankie Westfield to head it off the line.

OCB paid for the missed opportunity as the hosts took the lead on the other end. Westfield received the ball on the left and, after a couple of touches, sent a cross across goal. Olivas found space between Williams and Taifi as neither defender picked up the run into the six-yard box. As a result, Olivas was able to touch the ball past Otero to give Philadelphia an early 1-0 lead.

In the 12th minute, Nick Pariano created a chance from the other side. Beating Taifi to the end line, the midfielder sent a low ball across the goal mouth. Fortunately, nobody was making a run for Philadelphia and the ball went harmlessly through the box.

The Young Lions felt they should’ve had a penalty in the 24th minute when Tsukada dribbled past his defender and towards the end line. The midfielder went down as the ball went out of play and threw his arms in the air, but referee Gary Gutierrez awarded a corner kick instead.

OCB found the equalizer in the 30th minute when Solis played a nice ball for Tsukada to run onto. Philadelphia was caught with too many players forward, leaving Rivera alone on the far side of the box. Tsukada found the attacker and Rivera had plenty of time to curl the ball inside the far post to make it a 1-1 game.

The Young Lions nearly took their first lead a minute later when Tsukada played the ball across for Mohammed on the left. The first-team forward’s first touch was to the top of the six-yard box where Rivera was charging in. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to reach the ball, enabling Union II to clear.

In the 36th minute, Philadelphia had a pair of corner kicks and the second one gave the hosts a good chance to retake the lead. The corner fell in the middle of the box, but Williams was unable to get his foot on the ball. Edward Davis’ first shot was blocked back to Olivas, who got it back to Davis. The forward’s second shot was wide of the target and the Young Lions cleared the danger.

Things got a little feisty in the 39th minute when David Vazuez pulled down Rivera. Following the foul, the Philadelphia attacker kicked out at Rivera, which his OCB teammates didn’t appreciate. Some pushing and shoving ensued, resulting in Vazquez and Williams being booked.

While neither team was able to create any chances, hostilities continued in the 45th minute when Freeman shielded Olivas from the ball. After Olivas went down, Salim stepped over him and Gutierrez had to separate players again. However, no cards were shown during this incident.

At halftime, Philadelphia had more possession (52%-48%), shots (10-6), and corners (6-5), and better passing accuracy (83.3%-77.8%). Meanwhile, OCB had more shots on target (4-2), but only one went in for both teams as they entered the break at 1-1.

Both teams created chances early in the second 45 minutes, but neither resulted in a go-ahead goal. Pariano had the first opportunity as he weaved through the OCB defense and into the box. He eventually took a shot, but Williams got in front to block it, enabling Otero to easily collect it.

A minute later, OCB had its first chance of the half when Solis’ pass for Mohammed split the defense. Mohammed sent a low cross into the box, but none of his teammates were there to get on the end of it.

Following the first couple of chances, things settled down, as neither team was able to create chances. However, Otero came out of his box in the 65th minute to play the ball, not realizing Davis was behind him. Once he recognized the attacker, he cleared the ball out for a Philadelphia throw in.

Union II used the throw-in to create another chance. Vazquez dribbled into the box and Otero tipped the ball away, but only to Olivas. The forward reached the end line and sent a low pass across the goal mouth with Otero still well away from his net. Fortunately, nobody was there and Taifi was able to clear it out of play. The ensuing corner kick was taken by Otero, but the goalkeeper went down after a challenge. The OCB medical staff attended to the young shot stopper, but he was able to continue.

The hosts had another chance in the 73rd minute when Olivas met a low cross near the penalty spot. Taifi got in front of the shot, but deflected it off the crossbar. Philadelphia retained possession, resulting in Giovanny Sequera getting a shot, but this one was well over the target.

In the 75th minute, Williams went down and required treatment. As a result, he had to leave the field for two minutes. Shortly after leaving, Otero collected the ball and went to the ground for the second time in the half. He received treatment long enough for the two minutes to elapse, enabling Williams to return to the field.

The first OCB substitution came in the 81st minute when Favian Loyola replaced Rivera.

As the Young Lions searched for their first shot of the second half, Philadelphia continued to create chances. In the 82nd minute, Olivas cut the ball back for second-half substitute Ryan Zellefrow in the box. Zellefrow’s first touch was a shot, but he sent the ball well over the target.

Goldberg made his second change in the 84th minute, bringing teenage forward Justin Ellis on for Mohammed.

In the 86th minute, CJ Olney found Westfield on the left side of the box. The left back attempted a low cross across the goal, but it was cleared out for a corner kick. The ensuing set piece was cleared by Solis, keeping the game at 1-1.

Philadelphia broke the other way in the 89th minute, forcing Solis to pull back the attacker, and he received a yellow card for it. The break in action enabled Goldberg to make his final change of the game, replacing Tsukada with Thomas Bowe.

Gutierrez added seven minutes to the second half and Philadelphia nearly took the lead in the sixth minute. A good run into the box by Vazquez enabled him to find space for a shot. However, Otero barely got his fingers to the ball, tipping it wide.

Zellefrow had a late chance for Philadelphia with a teammate on the far side of the field. He tried to play the ball around Salim to himself, but the OCB center back did well to stay in front and play it back to Otero. That was the final play of the 90 minutes as the game ended tied.

At the end of 90 minutes, Philadelphia had more possession (58.2%-41.8%), shots (22-6), shots on target (7-4), and corners (11-7), and better passing accuracy (82.8%-73.5%). OCB didn’t have a single shot in the second half, but was able to keep Union II’s 11 second-half shots out of the goal.

As per MLS NEXT Pro rules, the draw meant both teams would receive a point and go to penalties to decide who got a second. It was an impressive shootout, with the first 13 shooters scoring. In the seventh round, Olwethu Makhanya scored, meaning that Taifi had to convert to keep OCB alive. The defender went down the middle and Rick dove to his right, but the goalkeeper was able to drag his feet behind him, knocking the attempt wide. As a result, Philadelphia claimed the extra point.

The result is OCB’s second draw of the season. However, while they defeated Huntsville City FC in the first shootout on March 22, they lost this one, 7-6. The Young Lions remain undefeated on the road (1-0-2), taking six out of a possible nine points in away matches. They have six points from their first four games and remain in seventh in the Eastern Conference.


OCB will continue its road swing as the Young Lions take on Crown Legacy FC in North Carolina next Friday night.

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Orlando City B

Orlando City B vs. Inter Miami II: Final Score 2-0 as OCB Suffers First Loss of 2024

OCB drops “home opener” to Inter Miami II at IMG Academy for the team’s first loss of 2024.

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Image courtesy of Orlando City B / Mark Thor

Orlando City B (1-1-1, 5 points) fell for the first time in the 2024 MLS NEXT Pro season, losing 2-0 to Inter Miami II (2-0-1, 7 points) in a “home game” at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Alejandro Flores gave Miami the lead in the 21st minute and Bryan Destin doubled the advantage in the 64th minute.

OCB Head Coach Manuel Goldberg made six changes to the team that drew Huntsville City FC 1-1 and claimed the extra point on penalties. With the first team not playing this coming weekend, several MLS-contracted players returned to OCB for this rivalry game. Javier Otero, Alex Freeman, Abdi Salim, Jeorgio Kocevski, and Jack Lynn entered the lineup — along with OCB regular Wilfredo Rivera — replacing Carlos Mercado, Zakaria Taifi, Tahir Reid-Brown, Colin Guske, Thomas Bowe, and Justin Ellis. Of the six players replaced, only Guske and Ellis weren’t on the bench tonight.

The Young Lions lined up with Freeman, Nabi Kibunguchy, Salim, and Manuel Cocca in front of Otero. Kocevski and Imanol Almaguer were behind Rivera, Jhon Solis, and Yutaro Tsukada with Lynn as the lone striker.

This was a game of missed opportunities by OCB . The Young Lions dominated possession and chances throughout the 90 minutes, but rarely hit the target. Meanwhile, poor giveaways in bad areas gave the opposition chances and they were much more clinical.

OCB got the first couple of attacking opportunities, dribbling into the Miami box from the left. In the second minute, Tsukada sent a dangerous low cross into the Miami box, but it was cleared away. Five minutes later, the midfielder shielded Nykolas Sessock, who had a hold of his shirt, and found Rivera in front of goal. The former first-team player’s first touch was a shot towards goal, but he sent the attempt over the target.

Miami’s first chance came in the 12th minute when the South Florida side began a counter attack from a blocked Tsukada cross. Quick passing saw the ball sent long for Destin, who was in a foot race with Kibunguchy. The center back got to the ball first, but Destin won it from him and created a shot from outside the box. He shot for the far post and sent the ball wide.

While the Young Lions had most of the early possession and chances, it was Miami that took the lead. It began from a strong buildup, with Sessock receiving the ball on the right. Salim stepped up to block the defender’s cross, but it went right to Flores. The midfielder had plenty of time, sending the ball past Otero and inside the far post to give Miami a 1-0 lead.

OCB quickly went forward at the kickoff and created a chance of its own. In the 23rd minute, Tsukada sent a cross in for Rivera, but Tye Barton knocked it out of play for an OCB corner kick. Rivera’s set piece was headed down by Kibunguchy in the box, landing at the feet of Freeman. The right back quickly shot, but sent the attempt over the target from just outside of the six-yard box.

Rivera had a chance in the 30th minute as he carried the ball into the Miami box. He had Ricardo Montenegro all over him, but did well to shield the ball and get a shot off. Miami goalkeeper Cole Jensen didn’t have a chance to stop it as the ball headed towards his left post. Unfortunately for the Young Lions, the attempt bounced off the woodwork, enabling Miami to clear.

In the 31st minute, Lynn found Kocevski in the box. The rookie’s shot was blocked by Tyler Hall, but went right to Lynn. The 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot winner took a shot of his own, but missed the target.

The Young Lions had another opportunity in the 41st minute when Cocca sent a dangerous cross into the box from the left. Rivera and Freeman were both there and attempted to get their heads on the ball, but it ended up in the arms of Jensen.

At the end of the first half, OCB had more shots (6-5), corners (6-1), and crosses (5-1). However, Miami put three shots on target while OCB was unable to put any on frame, a determining factor in why the Young Lions went into the break trailing rather than leading.

Miami had a golden opportunity to extend its lead just after halftime when, in the 48th minute, Salim gave the ball away to Flores as the last defender. The first-half goal scorer had a breakaway with Salim chasing behind, but sent his shot straight to Otero.

In the 51st minute, Almaguer’s headed clearance attempt went to Montenegro, who darted the other way. He played it wide for Destin, who found Ryan Carmichael at the far post. The forward brought it down with his thigh and shot, but Tsukada got in front and blocked the attempt.

Miami maintained the ball, playing it back into its own third. The Young Lions put pressure on the back line, forcing a turnover. A quick pass forward by Cocca for Lynn saw the striker dribbling inside to find space for a shot, but he missed the target wide right.

The Young Lions finally got a shot on target in the 56th minute. It was a wonderful individual effort by Rivera, who did well to beat Flores and get a shot off from about 25 yards out. The shot was hard and on target towards the top right corner, but Jensen was able to get in front and knock it out of play.

In the 57th minute, Freeman won the ball back quickly after losing it and sent Lynn behind the Miami back line. Barton caught up to the OCB striker and got in front, but Lynn used some quick movements to gain enough space to take a shot. He was looking for the far post from a tight angle, but missed wide.

Goldberg made his first change of the game in the 63rd minute and it was a like-for-like substitution as Shak Mohammed entered the game for Rivera.

Shortly after the substitution, OCB gave up a second goal. A quick pass on a 50-50 ball by Flores began a break for Carmichael. The forward found Destin between the center backs, enabling him to gain possession and get in on goal. Destin took the attempt well, beating Otero to his near post and giving Miami a 2-0 lead.

In the 68th minute, a short OCB corner created another good chance for the Young Lions. Tsukada sent the ball towards the back post where Kibunguchy headed it down. Lynn stuck his foot out to reach the ball, but sent it wide of the post.

Goldberg made three more changes in the 81st minute. Tsukada, Cocca, and Kocevski were replaced by Favian Loyola, Diego Pareja, and Tahir Reid-Brown.

Mohammed worked hard after coming on and created an opportunity for himself in the 90th minute. While making a long run from near midfield, no defenders stepped up. The attacker continued his run to the top of the Miami box and took a hard shot, but it was right to Jensen.

Three minutes into second-half stoppage time, Mohammed sent a great ball across the box with Lynn entering the six. The striker nearly redirected it on goal, but couldn’t quite reach the pass.

Seconds later, Loyola made a great turn to beat Destin. The forward caught back up to Loyola and pushed him down. The OCB substitute fell into the box, but the initial contact was just outside. Lynn stepped up to take the set piece, but drilled it into the wall.

Shortly after, Almaguer turned the ball over after a quick free kick. Miami went the other way with Destin leading the charge. As Williams and Kibunguchy sprinted back, Destin had second-half substitute Cristian Ortiz in the middle. Williams held Destin up just enough to allow Kibunguchy to block the pass away. Without the defensive efforts by Williams and Kibungucuhy, it would likely have been 3-0.

That was the last chance of the game for either team as the Young Lions lost for the first time in this young season. At full time, OCB had more shots (14-9), corners (13-4), and crosses (14-4), and better passing accuracy (85.6%-78.4%). However, the Young Lions only put two shots on target while Miami put five on frame, the difference in the 2-0 defeat.

After defeating Atlanta United 2 and drawing Huntsville City FC, OCB suffered its first loss of the season. While the Young Lions are still off to a decent start, this game will hurt because of the missed chances they had. It was a particularly tough game for Lynn, who had multiple opportunities in front of goal, but couldn’t put any of them on target.


The Young Lions will now head back out on the road for another two-game road trip, beginning in Pennsylvania against Philadelphia Union II next Thursday night.

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Orlando City B

Orlando City B vs. Huntsville City FC: Final Score 1-1 as Young Lions Claim Shootout Point Following Road Draw

The Young Lions are bringing five out of a possible six points home after a shootout win in Huntsville.

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Image courtesy of Orlando City B

For the second straight game, OCB fell behind but came back to get a result. The Young Lions watched Joel Sangwa open the scoring on a free header for Huntsville City FC (0-0-2, 2 points) in the first half, but battled back on a Justin Ellis goal, as OCB (1-0-1, 5 points) earned a hard-fought 1-1 draw on a rainy night at Joe W. Davis Stadium in Huntsville, AL. The Young Lions then won a wild penalty shootout to claim another point in the standings.

For the moment, that puts OCB atop the Eastern Conference on the early season, but with one more game played than most teams. The Young Lions earned five out of a possible six points in their two-game, season-opening road trip.

Head Coach Manuel Goldberg’s lineup featured Carlos Mercado in goal behind a back line of Tahir Reid-Brown, Manuel Cocca, Nabi Kibunguchi, and Zakaria Taifi. Imanol Almaguer and Colin Guske made up the double pivot in central midfield behind an attacking midfield line of Yutaro Tsukada, Jhon Solis, and Thomas Bowe with Justin Ellis up top.

The Young Lions started the game as the protagonists, getting a couple of early half chances but wasting them badly with wild, off-target shots. One effort went so far wide in the opening minutes that it seems impossible that it wasn’t blocked. The second came from Cocca off a scramble in the box on a corner kick, but the defender sent a shot high into the night sky in the ninth minute.

After a good first 10 minutes for OCB, Huntsville started settling into the game, but the hosts were helped by poor touches and passes by the Young Lions. Orlando City B repeatedly tried to make quick, intricate passes in tight space in their own half or near midfield and could not make them precisely enough, allowing Huntsville to easily take the ball away time after time. It put the Young Lions on their heels for the middle part of the first half.

Jonathan Bolanos sent a hard, low shot from outside the box just inches of Mercado’s left post in the 24th minute. Bolanos gave Taifi some problems down OCB’s right flank, winning some set pieces and sending some dangerous crosses into the box.

Forster Ajago just mistimed his jump a minute after the Bolanos miss after OCB turned the ball over again. That led to a corner kick and the hosts made the set piece pay off. Sangwa went high over Ellis and put his free header past Mercado to open the scoring in the 26th minute.

Ajago had a chance to double the lead a minute later but committed a foul trying to push his way to a cross.

The Young Lions started to get some rhythm back around the half-hour mark. Solis got into the box and would have had a dangerous scoring chance, but a wayward spoiled the attack in the 31st minute. Seconds later, Tsukada tried an ambitious effort from outside the right corner of the box. The rookie’s shot didn’t bend and stayed well off target.

In the 34th minute, Tsukada sent a good ball through the box that Ellis couldn’t quite turn on target and OCB’s back post runner wasn’t close enough to tap it into the empty net. The Lions pulled level moments later anyway.

Sangwa took an unsteady touch on a back pass and Ellis pounced, knocking it toward the penalty area. The players arrived together and Ellis out-muscled the defender to win the ball, then calmly stepped to his left across the face of goal and slotted the equalizer home in the 36th minute for his first MLS NEXT Pro goal.

Reid-Brown came within inches of giving OCB the lead in the 40th minute. The Homegrown fullback sent in a shot from outside the area that crashed off the crossbar behind goalkeeper Ben Martino. The ball rebounded to Taifi, but the right back’s shot was deflected behind for a corner. A minute later, Almaguer went for goal from long range and hit his shot wildly off target. Guske fired a similarly wild shot in the 44th minute, but in fairness, the rain was falling and the ball was wet.

The last good chance of the half fell to Huntsville. A ball knocked away by the defense made it just outside the area on the right to Maximus Ekk, who smashed a volley toward goal that skipped just wide of the left post.

The stat sheet was indicative of the tie score at the break. OCB finished the half with the advantage in shots (8-4), while Huntsville passed more accurately (85.1%-78.2%) and held more possession (55%-45%). Each team put one shot on target (the two goals), and both sides won four corner kicks.

Orlando won an early corner after the restart but did nothing with it. Huntsville then seized control of the match and the hosts were rarely threatened from that point on. However, the OCB defense did well to handle almost everything Huntsville City threw at it, and when the ball got through, Mercado was there to catch the ball.

Adem Sipic fired the first shot on target in the 49th minute, sending a shot in from the left side that Mercado was able to catch cleanly despite the rain. Three minutes later, Ekk found himself all alone at the back post for a free header, but he couldn’t get any power behind his shot and Mercado fielded it on one hop.

Ekk then blasted a shot from well outside the area off a corner kick played short. Kibunguchy got his head to it to ensure that Mercado didn’t have to make a save on the strike. Solis cleared the ensuing corner but Huntsville won it back and Ekk freed himself for a shot from outside the area that Mercado saved.

The hosts continued their assault on goal with Kibunguchy blocking a shot inside the box, followed by Mercado catching a long-range effort from Bolanos in the 55th and 56th minutes, respectively.

One of OCB’s problems in the second half was wasting attacking opportunities. Both teams fell in love with the long shot attempt and neither side came particularly close to scoring with such efforts. Tsukada wasted an opportunity in the 57th minute with an impatient attempt that came nowhere near threatening the goal.

Ollie Wright sent a shot wide of goal from a good spot near the top of the area in the 59th minute and Huntsville teammate Scott Cheevers was booked for yapping at the referee for giving a goal kick. Two minutes later, Reid-Brown got away with a bad turnover in his own box, hustling to help win the ball back.

Tsukada made a fantastic run through the defense in the 63rd minute and did well to free himself for a shot fromt he left, but Sangwa came in to block it at the last second. OCB could not make the corner kick pay off. Another rare foray up the pitch nearly created something for the Young Lions, but a cross fizzed too quickly through the box for Ellis to get onto it.

Goldberg subbed in Majed Mohammed for Ellis in the 78th minute and OCB struggled to keep possession after the change. Mohammed got position well on long balls forward but could not bring balls down close enough to his body. The few times he did, he was muscled off the ball by the defense and Huntsville continued its attack.

There was a scary moment in the 82nd minute when a ball popped loose in the box. Mercado raced off his line and got to the ball just ahead of Ajago, who tumbled over the prone goalkeeper. Huntsville shouted for a penalty, but Mercado got a touch to the ball just before Ajago arrived, and although the keeper couldn’t maintain possession of the wet ball, the lack of a penalty call seemed the correct one.

OCB seemed content to play for the draw after that and nearly got a counterattack opportunity in the 90th minute, but Wright played a second ball on the pitch down the middle to break up the transition. He was booked for the interference.

The Young Lions wanted a penalty in the second minute of six added minutes. Abdullah did well to make his first decent attacking run and got into the box, going down with contact, but the referee deemed the challenge legal and played on.

Orlando survived a couple of late Huntsville attacks to earn the road draw at full time.

Huntsville sustained its second-half pressure and finished with the advantage in shots (14-12), shots on target (5-1), passing accuracy (85.4%-74.6%), and corners (9-6). But OCB defended well and Mercado didn’t have to make many big stops.

That would soon change.

Because the game ended in a draw, MLS NEXT Pro rules dictate that the game goes to penalties to determine which team earns a second point in the standings. It was Huntsville’s second shootout in as many games and OCB’s first of the season.

The hosts shot first from the spot, with Alexis Cerritos scoring to set the tone for Huntsville City. Cocca fired off the underside of the crossbar and in to level the shootout after one round.

Sangwa fired wide of the left post as Huntsville’s second shooter, giving OCB a chance to seize control. The Young Lions squandered that opportunity when Zakaria Taifi left his shot too close to Martino, who was able to get down in time to stop the shot.

Isaiah Johnston fired a shot just under the bar into the roof of the net to make it 2-1 Huntsville to open the third round. Tsukada used a Bruno Fernandes-like stuttery run-up and hop to force Martino to commit, then calmly slotted home to tie it at 2-2 after three rounds.

Cheevers restored the lead for the hosts with Huntsville’s fourth shot, but Guske answered with an inch-perfect shot inside the left post to make it 3-3.

Sipic sent a shot toward the right post as Huntsville’s fifth shooter, but Mercado had already guessed that way and made a good save near the post to keep the score tied. OCB had a chance to win, but Kibunguchy left his shot too close to the middle and Martino was not fooled by his sprint up to the ball, making a comfortable save and sending the shootout to sudden death.

Mercado came up with another stop on Alejandro Velazquez-Lopez to give OCB another chance to grab the extra point, and this time the Young Lions capitalized. Thomas Bowe coolly slotted home his spot kick past Martino to lift OCB to the 4-3 shootout win and the extra point in the MLS NEXT Pro standings.


The Young Lions will host Inter Miami in their home opener on Tuesday at 6 p.m., but the club has yet to announce the venue for the match.

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