It’s amazing what can happen in two years.
Just a little more than two years ago, at the conclusion of the 2018 MLS season, Orlando City had just one Homegrown player on its roster – goalkeeper Mason Stajduhar, signed as a teenager in 2016. The Club had only signed four Homegrowns in total since joining Major League Soccer in 2015.
Then, the Club’s top soccer personnel changed, and so did the philosophy. Luiz Muzzi arrived from FC Dallas as Orlando’s new Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations. Shortly afterwards, the Club announced that its Academy would join the First Team at the Orlando City Training Ground at Osceola Heritage Park, along with the hiring of Marcelo Neveleff from New England as the new Academy Director. Oscar Pareja, one of the most celebrated and youth-forward head coaches in the North American game, would join the club as first team Head Coach in December 2019.
As of April 2021, Orlando City’s all-time Homegrown total has more than doubled to 10, with seven Homegrown players on the First Team roster and an established pipeline ready to bring more.
“In the last 21 months we did a very good job changing the mentality level of players,” said Neveleff. “Our players are more competitive than they ever were and you can see that they have developed a sense of care for the Club and the community every time they step on the field.”
At the Orlando City SC Training Ground, the Academy teams train in the same facility as the MLS side, often on an adjacent field. Academy players are routinely called into First Team training, and five Orlando City Academy prospects were invited by Pareja to join his group for a week-long camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton this preseason.
“I believe one of the main reasons we have been able to create this level of mentality is because of our Academy being so well connected to the First Team, in terms of communication and being established in the same location,” said Neveleff.
“Oscar Pareja has done a phenomenal job incorporating young talent to the MLS training sessions and scrimmage games,” added Orlando City U15 Head Coach Roberto Sibaja. “The culture has changed 180 degrees since the Club brought back the U15 and U17 Academy teams to Osceola Heritage Park.”
Two of the players invited to IMG, forward Wilfredo Rivera and midfielder Raul Aguilera, have since signed Homegrown contracts with Orlando City. They join forward Benji Michel, midfielders Jordan Bender and David Loera, as well as defender Michael Halliday as Homegrown players signed under Muzzi’s leadership.
Michel has blossomed in two seasons with the Lions, scoring 10 goals in 39 appearances and making his way into both the United States U23 squad and a senior national team camp. Bender and Loera have also earned first team debuts, while Halliday scored a goal in the 2021 preseason.
“It is exciting to know that at some point these Homegrown players will start having minutes with the First Team, and I'm really looking forward to that moment,” said Neveleff. “I believe that at Orlando City, we can develop the players that the fans want to see on the field playing next to Nani, [Mauricio] Pereyra, Pato, and [Junior] Urso to name a few, and feel themselves well represented, and proud of our local talent.”
As the Club continued to evolve its youth setup, the structure of its development pipeline shifted to best suit Orlando City’s goals. After a pandemic-shortened season in USL League One in 2020, the Lions have moved to an Academy team setup, with its top players featuring for the U23 side in the United Premier Soccer League, a way to get top young players gametime before a to-be-announced MLS opportunity is established.
“We have a group of players that we call the Academy 23,” Neveleff explained. “In this group we have top talent from the Club training and playing games together. It is called 23, but we have some of our very own U15 players in this group. For us if you are good enough, you are old enough.”
Asked why Orlando City chose to move away from USL League One and towards the new system, Neveleff said: “I think this kind of initiative will make us the youth program that we want to be. This is the Orlando way, our holistic way to develop a player overall, that will not only will play great soccer, but will be a great person with all the values they need to represent us on our First Team and hopefully some of them in their national teams.”
Muzzi and Pareja moved both Rivera and Aguilera up to the First Team from the U23 side this spring, and future Homegrowns will likely come from this team as well. Neveleff believes there are multiple players on the team currently who are ready to make the jump to MLS, but says the timing has to be right on all sides.
“Our main focus is to always add players that can make a good impact on the team,” he said. “We don't want to just sign players to say we ‘signed Homegrowns,’ but instead we [want to] wait for the perfect moment.”
That perfect moment has come for a half-dozen players in the past two years. Orlando City fans can expect many more to come.