Benji Michel might be the start of a new era for Orlando City.
At the very least, he’s indicative of what Orlando City is trying to do under new executive vice president of soccer operations Luiz Muzzi, who has made it clear he values to the talent available to him in Central Florida. Michel, a 21-year-old Orlando native who played for Orlando City’s U-18s, signed a Homegrown deal at the end of December.
“For me, it was a no-brainer,” Michel told Pro Soccer USA at the MLS Player Combine, which was earlier this month at Orlando City Stadium.
“I grew up watching Orlando City. I was there [when they were] in USL. My friends are here. My family is here. I have all the support that I need to begin my first professional season. I feel like me signing as a Homegrown player for my city, it wouldn’t be as difficult for me because I live here and I have all the support that I need.”
He almost signed a Generation Adidas contract, which would have allowed him to leave college early and enter the MLS SuperDraft. After three years as a standout forward with the University of Portland, Michel would have been a target draft as a Generation Adidas deal. During three seasons at the University of Portland, Michel appeared in 53 games with 51 starts. He scored the game-winning goal during Portland’s 1-0 victory over UCLA in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Coming home to Orlando is what made the difference for Michel between a GA deal and signing a Homegrown contract.
“At first, I didn’t know I was a Homegrown,” he said.
Muzzi said he’s made a point of reaching out to potential Homegrowns in order to get them to Orlando City.
“We need to be known for Homegrowns,” Muzzi said at the combine. “I mean, come on, this is Central Florida. There’s so much talent here, right? The fact that we have only five Homegrowns … come on. We need to work on that.”
O’Connor echoed that sentiment at the draft, where Orlando City picked Orlando native Santiago Patiño No. 3 overall. Orlando City tried to get Patiño as a Homegrown player, but it was blocked from doing so by the league. O’Connor said the team was sending a message to other potential Homegrown players by drafting Patiño.
Muzzi said he received trade offers for the No. 3 pick, but the Lions were committed to bringing Patiño to the team.
“I think we want to make sure we send a message to all the other Homegrowns that are in college and that are out there that we are very intentional about trying to develop players and bring players through our system,” O’Connor said.
Things worked out the way Michel wanted them to.
“GA players, you don’t really know where you’re going to end up,” he said. “I knew if I did Homegrown, I’d be home.”
Michel said O’Connor made expectations clear ahead of the 2019 season.
“We had a good talk,” Michel said before preseason training camp kicked off. “We’ve talked a couple of times about what he expects from me and a lot of the players and our roles for the team, so that was really exciting.
“With the players we have now — we have a fairly new team. It’s just the beginning for us. It’s looking really nice right now with the players we have now. The players are working every day to make sure that what happened last year doesn’t occur again. We’re working hard to change what happened in the past.”