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Orlando City is making good use of its geographic advantage

Written by Will Parchman

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Since taking over as the first U19 MNT coach in history in early 2015, Brad Friedel’s training camps have been a virtual turnstile for new faces. Among all the YNT coaches in the system, Friedel’s arguably been the most egalitarian with his rosters, and there seems to be at least four or five first-time call-ups at each camp.

There is a reason for that.

In Europe, U19 teams are academy centerpieces. The premier domestic and continental youth leagues are all U19 leagues, and the most prestigious UEFA youth competition is at the U19 age. Some clubs in Germany are even eschewing reserve teams, which compete in the German 4th division, in favor of using their U19 sides as their second teams because the level is higher. If that tells you anything.

Before he stepped out the door, one of Jurgen Klinsmann’s most prominent reforms was the addition of U16 and U19 teams. The problem with this, essentially, is that there’s no burning reason for a U19 team in the U.S. It’s beneficial, without question, because it allows more players to walk under U.S. Soccer’s narrow microscope, but there’s no build-up competition at the end of the cycle like there is for UEFA. That’s a vital carrot, for instance, for the U17 and U20 cycles, and it’s why the U18 team has always been more waystation than destination.

Without any competitive continental U19 competition to build toward, Friedel’s U19 team is essentially a staging ground for the U20 team. It allows U.S. Soccer to throw a lot of fresh faces into the mix as a runway for a U20 team that features an often career-defining World Cup at the end of the rainbow. Which is why you’ll often see sentences like these in U19 releases.

Eight players are making their U-19 debuts: Matthew Freese, Noah Lawrence, Michael Ille, Lagos Kunga, Justin Ingram, Ryley Kraft, William Little and Mason Toye.

That’s from Friedel’s latest camp, an early February get-together in Sunrise, Fla. just north of Miami. It had all the hallmarks of one of his U19 camps, notably the parade of new names and the location. U.S. Soccer does a lot of camping in Florida. And for the only MLS team in the state, that’s very good news.

Orlando City’s already reaped the benefits of its location vis-a-vis roping in young talent. Tommy Redding, Pierre Da Silva and Joe Gallardo are all former U17 MNT residency kids just down the road in Bradenton, and while Orlando City might not’ve actively scouted each of them while they were in residency, the fact that its home base is just down the road doesn’t hurt. Whispers carry more easily in proximity. And it appears their location helped them poach another. Ryley Kraft, the sixth name on the above list, just signed with Orlando City B.

Kraft spent much of his development career ensconced with Sacramento Republic’s academy, and it was in that capacity that he traveled to Florida in February for his first ever camp. Whether or not Orlando City scouts were personally in attendance in Sunrise, the fact that the camp was close certainly didn’t hurt. From the above release.

“Ryley is a young central midfielder with good potential. He was brought to our attention after the last U.S. U-19 training camp and after doing our due diligence, we feel he will be a good addition to our group,” OCB head coach Anthony Pulis said. “He is technically sound, sees a pass and gets about the field well. He is only 18 so we will have to be patient and give him time to settle and adjust but we’re excited to work with him.”

There’s nothing below board about this, but it is a definite competitive advantage to have YNT camp after camp in your back yard. There’s actually a provision in the Homegrown rules that explicitly prohibits U17, U20 and U23 YNT players being added to Homegrown lists (provided they meet the geographic and academy requirements) if they were selected to those teams before being added by an MLS club.

But unless I’m missing something (and with MLS rules and regulations, I’m often missing something), I don’t see any mention of U19 players here.

Members of the U17, U20, and U23 U.S. National Teams cannot be added to an MLS team’s Homegrown Player List, but a player already on a Homegrown Player List can maintain that status if selected for a US National team at a later date.

So if Orlando City is able to skirt the letter of the law by adding U19 players before they make U20 debuts (again, assuming this loophole actually exists), then they’re wisely collecting young prospective first teamers and funneling them into their USL side for incubation. You’ll never catch me complaining about U19 players signing pro deals. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping any team from simply signing a player without MLS Homegrown ties – like Kraft – to a USL contract full stop.

In today’s MLS, this is how smart teams operate. With a relatively restrictive budget, MLS teams have to be especially smart to gain competitive advantage. And if Orlando City’s proximity to a bunch of YNT camps allows them an edge they’re dutifully taking advantage of? Just another reason Orlando City continues to rocket up the organizational MLS rankings.

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