Orange County SC made history when it signed 14-year-old Francis Jacobs to a professional contract in August, the latest player from the club's academy to join the USL Championship club's First Team. | Photo courtesy Liza Rosales / Orange County SC
In the buildup to the inaugural USL Academy Cup – for which qualifying begins this fall – USL-Academy.com will shine a light on academies within the USL Championship, League One and League Two that go above and beyond in helping young players succeed. Continuing the series, we head to the west coast where Orange County SC is making history with a talented crop of Academy standouts.
Since the start of President of Soccer Operations and General Manager Oliver Wyss’ tenure at the club, Orange County SC has been bullish on promoting young talent within Southern California’s bountiful terrain and placing it into the club’s professional system.
That was evident when it made then-15-year-old Aaron Cervantes its youngest signing in club history in the build-up to the 2018 USL Championship season but came into even greater focus recently when it signed 14-year-old Francis Jacobs to a professional contract.
The move made Francis the youngest male soccer player to ever sign for a professional club in the United States. But even though he’s now eligible to play for the club’s Championship side, Jacobs is expected to appear for OCSC at the first-ever USL Academy event in San Antonio in October. A central midfielder with precocious passing ability, OCSC sees a great deal of potential in Jacobs, but wants to be careful not to over-burden him with expectations so early in his career.
“Francis is a very talented player, but most importantly he is very coachable and he has a first-class work ethic that allows him to develop in our professional environment,” said Wyss recently. “He is learning from a great technical staff and is training daily with players that have played on the absolute highest level domestically and internationally with the national teams.
“Signing a player like Francis shows our commitment to give the most talented youth players a clear professional pathway that will maximize their development in every single aspect on and off the field.”
If Francis’ path follows the same pattern as Cervantes, then his future certainly looks bright. The goalkeeper, who turned 17 in March, has been a regular in Orange County’s lineup this season, posting three shutouts in 11 appearances this season. Those performances may earn Cervantes a place in the United States U-17 National Team that will head to the FIFA U-17 World Cup next month in Brazil. Currently in the Netherlands with U-17 Head Coach Raphael Wicky's squad for its final camp before the tournament, Cervantes is an illustration of the potential acceleration in development young players can achieve when placed in the right professional situations.
But while there are others like 18-year-old Rafael Espinoza also in the pipeline (Espinoza became Orange County’s first Academy signing last August), the process for Wyss and the club’s coaching staff is designed to ensure each young player develops at the right pace. OCSC’s player development model focuses on a holistic approach that acknowledges the importance of long-term, steady growth on a calculated timeline.
Though the club has taken the lead in signing players early in their youth careers, it doesn’t rush their advancement through the system. The staff invests time, effort and financial resources to create a structure that rewards both the players and the club down the line.
“The entire OCSC technical staff, starting with our technical director Frans Hoek and head coach Braeden Cloutier, are fully committed to developing young players and we actually hired a talent manager who’s sole focus is working with our young players during and after our training sessions,” said Wyss. “We have successfully created a professional environment where young players can develop to their fullest potential.”
With the formation of USL Academy, clubs like Orange County have a competition model with a clear pathway to the professional level for elite youth players. For Wyss, the new structure benefits everyone involved.
“[USL Academy] allows USL clubs to lead the development in their territory in a financially responsible way and develop top talents with big upswings,” said Wyss. “It is a win-win situation for all clubs and players involved and we are very excited to be part of the inaugural Academy Cup.”