Thirty minutes west of Orlando City Stadium, future Lions are being raised.
Since January 2018, the Orlando City Development Academy has been headquartered at Montverde Academy near Clermont, Fla., marking the beginning of the Club’s new approach to youth development.
“What ownership eventually wanted to get accomplished was try to bring everyone together under one roof to have one line of development from 4 years old all the way up to professional soccer,” said Mike Potempa, co-founder of the renowned Soccer Institute at Montverde Academy and general manager of Orlando City B, the Club’s USL League One affiliate.
The move, while curious on its surface, is quickly producing results. Six players have earned their first U.S. youth national team call-ups since January, and according to Potempa, it will soon be producing top-level talent for the First Team.
A holistic approach
Every two weeks, Potempa reviews his student-athletes' grades, looking closely for signs of academic progress or lack thereof.
“We have a duty when we’re working with kids to make sure that we understand not all of them are going to make it as a pro,” Potempa said. “In fact very few of them are going to make it as a pro. If we only focus on professional soccer and results, we’re actually doing them a disservice because those that don’t make it aren’t going to be prepared for life.
“Truthfully speaking, we care more about the development of the people, the development of the kids.”
At Montverde, kids are taught how to behave at airports and hotels. They’re taught to be responsible citizens and community leaders. They’re taught proper nutrition, to look someone in the eye while shaking their hand and to say please and thank you. They’re even taught to tuck in their chair.
This meticulous attention to molding well-rounded young men is critical in upholding the standard of excellence at Montverde and developing top-class professional soccer players. In Potempa’s eight years there, Montverde has produced 29.
“The holistic approach means you have to care about all of it,” Potempa said.
“If you become a soccer player, fantastic. But it’s our duty to build people, not just soccer players. That’s what the passion is for everybody here. When we talk about culture, it’s not a culture of winning. It’s a culture of success.”
Life less complicated
That culture left a strong impression on Luc Granitur.
Now in his third year with the OCDA, Granitur spent the previous two years driving with his parents from Vero Beach to Sylvan Lake Park in Sanford -- two and a half hours each way -- four days a week for training. For the opportunity to play in an MLS Development Academy, it was a sacrifice worth making.
When the OCDA moved to Montverde, Granitur immediately noticed the difference in structure.
“Here, everyone is under the same roof, the same coaching staff and all,” Granitur said. “Here, the coaches don’t just care about how you are as a player, they care about you as a person first.”
At 15 years old, Granitur showed enough potential to earn an opportunity with the OCDA U-19 team. His performance prompted Potempa to alert his contact at U.S. Soccer and shortly thereafter, Granitur earned a U.S. U-16 national team call-up.
From there it became obvious how much he was benefitting from the structure and coaching at Montverde, so Granitur approached Potempa about moving into the on-campus dorms, in part to lessen the burden on his family, but also to fully immerse himself in academics and soccer.
“We haven’t been here for a year yet and I can already see I’ve improved a lot, gotten a lot of opportunities playing here,” Granitur said. “With the academics at Montverde Academy, you can’t beat it. I’m really thankful.”
“He’s in the school, he’s living here with us,” Potempa said. “His life is a lot less complicated.”
Granitur is just one example of how Montverde’s infrastructure creates new possibilities for the Development Academy. In the past, the Club couldn’t offer housing or education for its youngsters. Now, though, City can effectively recruit and develop players from outside the Orlando metro area.
“We have more capability sharing resources between Montverde and Orlando City,” Potempa said. “Both sides are investing in it. Out staff is able to accomplish a lot being able to work with both entities. We’re able to holistically gather the groups together with the parents under one set of guidelines, one set of rules and regulations and one culture for proper development.”
The dream will be more alive
Granitur also epitomizes a key pillar of the new structure: “If he’s good enough, he’s old enough.”
Which brings us to the most fundamental shift in Orlando City’s youth system: Orlando City B.
Originally founded in 2016, OCB was largely comprised of full-time USL pros and First Teamers on loan to get developmental minutes or regain fitness. That model worked to an extent -- it produced current Lions Pierre Da Silva and Tony Rocha -- but it created a gap that Potempa is keen on eliminating.
The solution is to change OCB, which will begin play in 2019, from being a step down from the First Team or another stop for USL journeymen and turn it into a promotion from the OCDA.
“We can take a kid who’s 18 years old who we believe can be in the First Team in one or two years, but needs 10 months of professional football rather than three and a half months of college soccer to develop,” Potempa said, also noting the opportunity would be extended to kids younger than 18. “We’re going to play this player, he’s going to get experience against older players, he’s going to travel, he’s going to face pressure.
“By the time he’s 19 or 20, he should be ready for the First Team.”
Having OCB at Montverde allows the players to continue developing with the same coaches and philosophy rather than going off to separate universities and their own environments, all while under the watchful eye of City GM Niki Budalic.
It makes OCB the next logical step for OCDA graduates -- Potempa is also working on partnering with a local university so they can continue their education -- and offers a very tangible goal for the youngsters.
“When OCB is at the school, the players at the Academy are seeing their own get a chance to play pro, which is every little kid’s dream,” Potempa said. “The dream will be more alive.
“OCB becomes the top of our development pyramid and the fight for all of us, including the players, is, ‘I want to play downtown.’ I think it will change the landscape of Orlando City.”