Orlando City has placed an emphasis on developing Homegrown talent over the past few years. Seven of the club’s 11 all-time Homegrown Player signings have occurred since Dec. 31, 2018. This year, the club has seen success with its older age groups.
The Orlando City academy was originally formed in 2012, while the club was still in the USL Pro. The youth development system starts at the U-6 level, called the Little Lions, and goes up to the U-23 team.
In the past, the Orlando City academy teams played in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA). Teams in the USSDA had to meet certain requirements, such as days of training per year. This ensured the younger Lions competed with the best academies in the country. Except for 2018 when the team briefly went on hiatus, Orlando City B has played in the USL leagues. Initially a reserve team, OCB went on to become a U-23 side, helping to continue the development of the academy’s best players.
The 2021 season saw some significant moves for the Orlando City development system. Major League Soccer created a new development structure, called MLS NEXT. The Orlando City development academy teams joined this newly-formed system. After the 2020 USL League One season, OCB dropped out of the USL. While waiting for the new MLS third-division league to kick off in 2022, the team (known as OC Academy 23 this year) joined the United Premier Soccer League.
Development is more important than winning for these youth teams, but Orlando City experienced a somewhat surprising amount of success with its older age groups. During the MLS NEXT spring season, The U-19 team, the oldest age group, finished the season in third place in the 11-team Southeast Division with a record of 6-4-0. The U-17 squad experienced even more success, finishing atop the standings in the Southeast Division with a record of 10-1-1.
While the U-17s had a successful spring season, they made their mark in the playoffs. The Lions made a run through the playoffs that saw them beat the New England Revolution 3-1, advance on penalties over Shattuck-St. Mary’s, and beat the LA Galaxy and Sacramento Republic 2-1. On Saturday night, the Lions won the U-17 MLS NEXT Cup on penalties after a scoreless draw against Players Development Academy.
In addition to the U-17 team’s success, the U-23 team had a strong year in the UPSL. Fans that followed OCB in 2020 would recognize some of the names on the team, such as Javier Otero, Kenji Tanaka, Moises Tablante, and Daniel Rosario. Other former academy standouts, such as Kameron Lacey, Jack McCloskey, and Alejandro Pereira, joined the team after their collegiate seasons ended.
The team got off to a flying start, winning its first four games by a combined score of 25-2. However, it came back to earth in late April and early May with a 4-2 loss to eventual division champion CFL GOSA Spurs and a 1-1 draw with OFC Barca. The U-23 side finished strong, winning three of its last four regular season games.
The UPSL is a unique system, featuring 25 Premier Divisions throughout the United States, with three in Florida. Playing in the Florida Central Division, which consists of teams solely in the Orlando area, the Lions finished the spring season in second with a 7-1-2 record. The top four teams made the division’s postseason, with the winner advancing to the national playoffs.
OC Academy 23 started the postseason strong, defeating Jacksonville FC 2-1. A win over CFL GOSA Spurs would’ve seen Orlando advance to the national playoffs, but it fell in penalties after a scoreless draw at Osceola Heritage Park.
While success on the field is good for Orlando City’s youth teams, the academy’s real success will depend on the club’s Homegrown signings. Benji Michel and Michael Halliday have become impactful players in 2021 and the club will hope more signings will be similarly effective. However, the club and its fans should be happy to see the success of two of the oldest teams in the club’s development structure.