Photo: Mark Thor
It’s often said that one of the most fulfilling moments for any professional player is to represent their hometown club after spending their childhood within that organization’s academy ranks.
Each season, there are examples of storied clubs from across the world introducing such players, including teams in Major League Soccer (MLS)- who are producing more and more homegrown talent as the league continues to gain strength.
For the City Beautiful, however, that option has not been available, forcing top-caliber players such as Graham Zusi and Dax McCarty to take their talents elsewhere. But in approximately 16 months, youth players will no longer be required to represent other cities on the big stage due to a lack of opportunity in their hometown.
Last Tuesday, MLS and OCSC announced that the Lions would become the league’s 21st club and begin play in 2015, forever changing the culture of soccer in Central Florida by providing local youth players with a direct avenue to the best league in the United States.
Residing at the top of that pyramid is OCSC Head Coach and OCYS Director Adrian Heath, who sees the progression into MLS as a fruitful opportunity for talented Central Florida players.
“There is now a pathway for any player who is 6 or 7 years of age to progress their way through the club and play professionally at the highest level in America for the club that they started with,” said Heath in an interview with OrlandCityYouth.org. “Right now, I think we have a handful of players who could potentially make a living out of the game.”
As a youngster, Heath spent his childhood in the Stoke City Academy before being promoted into their first team. The former English League star would go on to make 95 appearances for the Potters and recalls his promotion as a very memorable and prideful moment in his career.
“Having done the same myself at Stoke City, I can say that being able to play in front of your family and childhood friends is a great feeling. One of the biggest things for these players is that the infrastructure, coaching and facilities will all be raised to the highest order.”
While the club has maintained its mission to provide recreational soccer and a focus on development at the varying academy levels currently in place, there will also be slight modifications to the boys and girls elite programs.
Those changes in the club’s infrastructure could potentially include an increase in the frequency of training sessions, along with a residency program that provides an education to go along with those high level sessions.
Similar to many other OCYS members, U14 Development Academy and U.S. U15 National Team Pool player Raul Aguilera sees the changes set to occur as a massive opportunity to accomplish his dream of one day representing his hometown side.
“It’s been my biggest dream since the day that I started playing to be able to do what I love for a living,” said Aguilera in a phone interview with OrlandoCityYouth.org. “And if I could possibly achieve that dream of mine with the club that I grew up playing in, then it would be 10 times better.”
But what about the kids who have dreams other than playing soccer professionally? Not every player who wears the Orlando City crest will have aspirations of playing professionally, and statistics show that only a certain percentage will actually make the leap to the big leagues.
How does this upgrade benefit those players any more than a traditional youth club would?
“From a very young age, you’re able to watch those first team players regularly,” said OCYS Lead Director Paul Shaw who was promoted into Arsenal’s pro side from their youth academy. “Whether it’s on the training ground or on match days, you’re able to see how much work they put in to get where they are, and that level of dedication can be used for any career path you choose.”
As the pro side’s level of professionalism rises in order to compete in the major leagues, so will the level of professionalism in the youth club. The fundamental values of hard work, time management and dedication that are engrained in each first team player will naturally disseminate throughout the entire Orlando City pyramid.
So, whether they decide to chase the dream of playing professionally or not, those same principles will provide a solid framework for any goal they choose to score in life.