On any given game day, 17-year-old Orlando City defender Tommy Redding can look directly to his left and right and see teammates who have nearly as many combined years of professional soccer experience as Redding has years on this earth.
Redding, the Lions first-ever homegrown signing, is the youngest player on Orlando City's roster. He is also part of a growing trend of top U.S. prospects eschewing college to turn professional.
While the U.S. under-18 defender's decision to sign with his hometown team is crucial to his individual development, Redding's presence in the center of the Lions' back line is even more vital for Orlando City, which will eventually rely on its youth system to foster the club's progress.
Many believe the advent of the homegrown system will have a greater impact on U.S. soccer — from its domestic league to World Cup success — than anything since Major League Soccer was founded in 1996.
"That's the model that most of the world is working," said Lions' coach Adrian Heath, who turned pro in 1979 in his native England at the age of 17. "We're a little behind, but the fact that we're doing it now, we have to start somewhere."
When MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation established the U.S. Development Academy in 2007, the goal was to streamline a jumbled American youth soccer system and create a more established pipeline for the top young talents in the country to turn pro. The rest of the world had long functioned under this model. Famous academies of professional teams like Ajax Amsterdam in Holland, FC Barcelona in Spain, Manchester United in England and Sporting in Portugal have produced some of the world's top talents.
It was a roadmap the U.S. tried to follow as it formed its new system.
There have been 98 players inked to homegrown contracts in the six years since MLS established the system in which teams sign players from development academies to the top team. The benefits are already evident, never more so than at this summer's World Cup.
Seattle Sounders' 20-year-old defender DeAndre Yedlin became the first MLS homegrown player to appear for the U.S. in a World Cup, turning in two impressive performances that made him a sought-after commodity during this summer's transfer window — soccer's version of free agency. Former D.C. United homegrown player Andy Najar, 21, who was sold to Anderlecht in Belgium for $3 million in 2013, also made two appearances in the World Cup for his native Honduras.
MLS rosters are now littered with homegrown players, and many serve crucial roles for the teams they grew up watching.
On Monday night, a roster of promising MLS homegrown players will take on the Portland Timbers' under-23 team as part of the league's all-star game festivities. Kickoff is 10 p.m. and the game will be streamed live on ESPN3.com.
The MLS homegrown team will include players like 20-year-old Shane O'Neill, who has become a stalwart for the Colorado Rapids and started 40 of 42 games during the past two years, and 18-year-old Tommy Thompson, an under-20 national team player who has drawn a following despite making just one appearance with the San Jose Earthquakes this season.
"We had a meeting with all the academy parents recently, and I told them this generation fortunately for them, are the lucky ones," Heath said. "They can actually make it because of the system, not in spite of the system. They have a great opportunity, and I hope they grasp it with both hands. … The fact that they've just seen Graham Zusi from Oviedo playing in the World Cup, the fact that they've seen DeAndre Yedlin come through this system and actually start to see what can happen, it's an incredibly exciting time."
The homegrown system theoretically delivers a fountain effect. MLS develops the top young players in the country, and those players go on to play for the U.S. national team. The system centers around what soccer leaders view as one key problem: the American system of sending top athletes to the college levels does not help the country's elite 1 percent of young soccer prospects prepare for international competition.
For players like Redding, there is too much value to be gained in the professional ranks — from speed of play to matching up against older, veteran players, to the mental growth that comes with being a professional.
Not every signing pans out, there are numerous examples of player signed in the homegrown system who no longer play in MLS, but it has become a more clear route to groom the country's elite talent.
Heath said there are three or four players in Orlando City's current youth system that might have a chance to sign with the top team in the next few years.
"I think it's really important," said Redding, who turned down overtures from European clubs to sign with the Lions. "Starting with the [players born in 1995,] the top players looked at college but not many went. I think that's because of the homegrown system. It gives you the best possibility to start your pro career in your hometown. It's comfortable for you, you have your family there, it helps a lot."
Redding has had an extra luxury: the opportunity to begin his career with Orlando City in USL-PRO. The 6-foot-2 centerback has made some mistakes in his first pro season, but he has done so away from the glare of the MLS stage and against players that are a step between the youth national team and MLS talent.
Even more important than that, according to Heath, is what Redding has learned about the difference between playing a game and being a professional, an aspect of development that can't be replicated at the college level.
"One of the most difficult things for the player is the mental pressure week-in, week-out of the importance of the game," Heath said. "At 17, it's not the same as Rob Valentino at  with a wife and kid, and a kid on the way. His livelihood depends on what's going on. … When you're 17, 18, you don't get that. You go home, mom and dad does your washing and ironing and cooking, you turn up and play football and, 'Oh, it's great.' That is the difference.
"That is what they have to come to terms with, and that is a learning process. There's no magic wand for that or pill to take that gives you that. That is an experience thing they have to develop and you hope they learn it from the people around them."
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