Michael Orozco knew from a young age that he wanted to be a professional soccer player. And he thought he had the talent to make that happen.
To prove it he had to leave Orange County for Mexico before he was old enough to drive, embarking on a journey that took half a lifetime and included stops with seven teams in two countries, robbing him of valuable time at home with friends and family.
Seventeen years later, he has no regrets.
“I’m happy for what I did,” said Orozco, who grew up in Anaheim and trained in the academy system of Mexican club San Luis Potosi.
What if there had been another path?
Orozco has come home to help blaze that trail for others with the second-tier Orange County Soccer Club, playing with — and mentoring — two precocious teenagers who train as professionals each day and have dinner with their parents each night.
It’s the logical next step in OCSC’s “Pathway to Professional” project, one that owner James Keston and general manager Oliver Wyss hope will make the USL team a stepping stone from youth leagues to professional soccer, both in MLS and overseas.
“Even though the youth soccer scene is very, very good, specifically in Southern California, it’s still not the same when you play in your own age bracket every training session and every game,” said Wyss, who began his playing career in his native Switzerland, joining his hometown team at 15. “For these young players to be established and train every single day with professionals, think about how much quicker the development is.”
Over the last 17 months, Wyss has signed two local teenagers: goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes of Chino Hills, who joined the team five days short of his 16th birthday last year, and 14-year-old Francis Jacobs of Laguna Beach, who last month became the youngest player in history to sign with a men’s professional club in the U.S.
When Jacobs joined OCSC, he was about two months younger than Freddy Adu was when he signed with D.C. United of MLS in 2003. And while Adu was much heralded — his picture appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week before his MLS debut — his career failed to match the hype.
It’s a cautionary tale that seems to cry out “what’s the rush?”
Jacobs’ response? Why wait?
“I’m ready for it right now instead of just playing high school or academy four days a week,” said Jacobs, a high school freshman who had training stints with German clubs in 2016 and 2017 but signed his first contract with a team just a short drive from home. “I don’t think it gets much better than playing with pros at a young age.
“After everything at OCSC, I’ll fit in in Europe even more.”
A sturdy 5-foot-11, 155-pound midfielder who is bigger than some of his adult teammates, Jacobs has been training with OCSC since May but has yet to appear in a game. With the schedule winding down — OCSC enters Sunday’s game with New Mexico United 8-8-9 with nine matches left in the regular season — he may not make his USL debut until next season. In the meantime, he continues to play occasionally with the Irvine Strikers, a U.S. development academy team.
That timetable worked with Cervantes, who made one appearance last year but has emerged as the OCSC’s first-choice keeper this season, posting three shutouts in 11 starts.
“I definitely feel a big development step up since last year,” said Cervantes, who was scheduled to leave the team this weekend to join the national U-17 team for the 4 Nations Tournament in the Netherlands.
“You’re playing with men, you’re around men. You have to think more. It’s just different playing with boys your age.”
OCSC officials are doing this only partly out of the goodness of their hearts, because after signing the players young and sanding off the rough edges, the team can turn around and sell them for a transfer fee, which helps both the club and the player.
“He’s turned into an asset for us and we’re hoping after the [U-17] World Cup and into next season we can move him on to the next level,” Wyss said of Cervantes.
Jacobs and Cervantes are not the only players who have signed pro contacts before graduating high school. Earlier this year the Chicago Fire signed 14-year-old goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina, a product of the team’s academy. And just up the freeway in Carson, Efrain Alvarez, 17, and Julian Araujo, 18, have combined to play 24 MLS games for the Galaxy without having to leave their home state.
But the Galaxy left two others unsigned, so 18-year-olds Alex Mendez and Uly Llanez, who played with Alvarez in the team’s academy, left for Europe last year to test themselves in a pro environment.
That has worked for some — Christian Pulisic signed with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund at 16 — but the homesickness and culture shock have overwhelmed others. Landon Donovan, for example, signed a six-year contract with Bayer Leverkusen as a teen but spent much of his time training with youth national teams in the U.S.
“They’re still teenagers,” Wyss said. “Being a professional player is not easy. There’s a lot of ups and downs. I’m a big believer [in] having them home and let them be young still and learn and be around their family. Comfort level is very important in the long-term development of the player.”
“You don’t have to think about how am I going to get to practice? Where am I living?” he said, repeating the thought that consumed his mind early in his career. (Jacobs, who is too young to have a license, is driven to and from practice by his mom, Cindy.)
After leaving Mexico’s Lobos BUAP earlier this year, Orozco said he had offers to play elsewhere in Mexico and MLS. Or, at 33, he could have retired. Instead he decided to continue his career in Orange County, playing before the family and friends he had to leave as a teenager while now helping convince others to stay right here.
“It motivates me,” he said. “I didn’t have that opportunity and I had to go to another country to try to succeed in my career. I’m going to give the best advice I can to Francis so he won’t have to go to different countries.
“That’s why I signed. That’s exactly why I’m here.”