Benji Michel recalled watching previous editions of the MLS Homegrown Game during his time at the University of Portland.
Perhaps that was a foreshadowing moment as the Orlando City Homegrown will feature in the 2019 edition when the MLS Homegrown Team take on Chivas de Guadalajara's U-20 squad Tuesday (5 pm ET | TUDN, Twitter) at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
“I was really excited to be selected for the All-Star Homegrown game,” Michel told MLSsoccer.com. “I watched the Homegrown game a couple of times when I was in college, so for my name to be selected, to be part of that, it’s going to be fun and I can’t wait to get to experience it.”
Michel’s journey through the Orlando City Development Academy began when he was 17 years old. Paul Shaw, Orlando’s Youth Academy Director, discovered the Orlando native and brought him into the academy through an invitation.
It was a case of Shaw taking a chance, which eventually spurred Michel to successful stints at the DA and the Portland Pilots during his collegiate years.
“We got a good look at a lot of players locally,” said Shaw, who coached Michel’s U18/U17 DA team. “It was a case of inviting Benji and seeing how he is with a lot of players. As soon as we brought him into that environment, he excelled. You just don’t know what player you’re dealing with, so we brought him into the Development Academy, and we saw he’s one we definitely had to develop.”
Michel is Orlando City’s first pure-bred homegrown. Raised in Orlando by his older stepbrother Robert Thelusma, who introduced him to soccer at 10 years old, Michel attended high school at nearby Monteverde Academy.
The forward of Haitian descent eventually left Central Florida to play college soccer in Portland, scoring 31 goals in 53 appearances with the Pilots from 2016-18. During the summer, Michel played League Two (formerly USL PDL) with the Portland Timbers U-23s, but was called back home toward the end of last year when Orlando City brought in a new soccer chief.
The first task on day one on the job for Orlando City’s EVP of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi, who joined the organization after the end of last season from FC Dallas, was looking at the club’s homegrown and academy players.
“Who do we have? Which Homegrowns do we have in college and in our academy?,” Muzzi told MLSsoccer.com. “Who do we need to be paying attention to right now? That was one the first things, and I got the answers like Benji Michel, Santiago Patiño and some of the other guys who are still in college, and guys who are coming up through Orlando City B.”
On Dec. 31, Michel signed a Homegrown deal with the Lions and has featured in eight league games, starting four. His first MLS goal July 13 gifted Orlando City a 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew at Exploria Stadium.
Michel, however, doesn’t put much thought about the amount of playing time he’s getting during his rookie year in MLS, calling it a learning experience.
“I try not to think too much about that,” Michel said. “I just want to focus on the team, but if the team needs, I’m there to help out. I’ll keep working hard, keep focusing on the team and just try to do my best.”
According to Muzzi, Michel is still part of an ongoing process that requires time and patience.
“We have to respect the process,” Muzzi said. “We showed him the first team, but if we expect that he’s going to be great, there’s a chance he might fail. So, you have to have patience, especially coming from college where it’s a different system. I’ve said it time and time again, when these guys hit the five-month mark, they completely go down because they’re not used to it because in college they never go longer than that.
“He’s been developing, we just have to have patience with him,” he added. “I think the fact that he is getting minutes, and taking advantage of those minutes, that’s credit to him because he understands how the process works.”
Michel and Patiño, who was part of Orlando City’s academy, but instead was selected as the third overall pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft, are part of a new line of Orlando City’s development process, according to Muzzi.
College players affiliated with OCSC’s DA train with the first team throughout the summer, and it fits into Muzzi’s vision, especially when the Development Academy moves into the first-team’s new training grounds at Osceola Heritage Park next month.
“Having those guys training with us, you can get to know the new Orlando City and we can get to know them as well,” said Muzzi. “It’s great to see them every day, it’s great to get to know them over lunch and have conversations, but, as well, get to know them on the field and off the field. It’s been extremely positive.”