While many MLS clubs won’t publicly admit it, they don’t want their top academy players going to college. It makes the decision to sign players to a Homegrown deal more difficult and results in players signing at an older age. Orlando City’s most recent Homegrown signings show this impact.
Signing Homegrown Players is essential for MLS clubs because of league roster rules. Homegrown Players are cheaper than buying new players and allow clubs more of an overall profit when sold. MLS gives clubs an even greater incentive to sign Homegrown talents as they aren’t treated as regular players when it comes to the salary cap.
Under Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi, Orlando City has put much more focus on Homegrown talent. Since Muzzi took over in January 2019, the club has signed five Homegrown Players. The Lions had signed four in the previous five years, dating back to 2014.
Every MLS club has a development academy that takes players through the U-18/19 level. Where the clubs differ is what happens to players after they graduate from the academy. Some clubs leave players with little option other than to play collegiate soccer if they aren’t ready to sign with the first team, while others have U-23 teams the players can join. Orlando City has recently shown more emphasis on the latter and it’s paying off.
Most players who sign first team contracts still need to develop. Whether they’re 17 or 22, few are ready to contribute regularly during their rookie season. Signing players at younger ages gives them more time to develop before they enter their prime soccer-playing years.
While Orlando City started its developmental side in 2016, it didn’t begin using it to develop academy products until 2019. The team wasn’t primarily made up of academy products until last year.
Orlando City has recently brought players into the senior team directly through its academy and by having them play in college first. Those who avoided college have signed at a younger age, giving them more time to develop.
Last week, the club signed teenager Wilfredo Rivera to a Homegrown deal. The academy product spent last year with Orlando City B and his performance impressed the senior team coaching staff and front office.
While Rivera was playing for OCB, Orlando City Head Coach Oscar Pareja was able to keep an eye on the young player. This included OCB training sessions, inviting him to train with the first team, and viewing home games at Osceola County Stadium right next to the training facility.
This preseason, Rivera has spent his time with the first team, along with some other young players. They traveled with the team to Bradenton for a preseason camp and have taken part in preseason scrimmages against MLS competition.
This experience differs greatly from those who attend college. A good comparison is with another relatively recent first team signing, David Loera.
The midfielder, who signed a Homegrown deal prior to last season, came through Orlando City’s academy, making appearances for OCB in 2016 and 2017. With OCB going on hiatus in 2018, Loera had little choice but to play college soccer.
This was a huge disadvantage for the midfielder. Coaches were unable to see him live while he was in school and he was unable to train with the first team. Attending classes during the spring semester meant he also couldn’t join in preseason training with the first team.
It’s impossible to know whether Loera would’ve signed a first team deal sooner had he stayed with the club. But he quickly became a star in college soccer, more than holding his own in the ACC — arguably the college game’s most difficult conference.
Had Loera had the same benefits as Rivera, it’s quite possible that Loera could’ve impressed in training sessions and been signed to a first team contract. The two years he spent at North Carolina State could’ve been spent in Orlando, further advancing his development and making him a first team contributor sooner.
After last season, Orlando City removed OCB from USL League One, intending on entering a new MLS reserve league. With that league delayed by at least a year, the club put a U-23 team in the United Premier Soccer League for the 2021 season. Although a lower level than USL League One and an MLS reserve league, it still offers the same benefits for young academy products.
The club’s commitment to fielding a U-23 side will result in the signing of younger Homegrown players. The team’s 3-0 win in its opening game saw a pair of goals from Kenji Tanaka, an academy product on OCB last year who might have attended college had the team not existed. Like Rivera, he’ll be closely viewed by Pareja and could have the opportunity to train with the first team.
It’s unknown what the future holds for Orlando City’s youth development. The global pandemic has caused a delay in the creation of an MLS reserve league so the club will have to use the UPSL as a temporary alternative. But having a U-23 team will allow the club to better evaluate players at younger ages. This could have a significant impact on the first team well into the future.