Why I Love Orlando City
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
I was never a big soccer fan. Sure I had bought the FIFA games, but that was because it was the hip thing to do. Being in college was all about FIFA and determining if one was going to class or not. Of course names like Thierry Henry and Messi were familiar names, but once again that was primarily because of FIFA and World Cup matches. But there was still no interest in soccer. That changed junior year of college. It was here that I started to gain a better understanding of the beautiful game. It also helped that my professor was was a Liverpool fan and guided me in that direction. So I took up following the English Premier League and Liverpool. But of course there was a hole. Liverpool is thousands of miles away from Florida and being a poor college student I couldn't make the trek to Anfield? Thus I wanted to find a local team to support. A team that I could get behind. Then I was introduced to a NSL team known as Orlando City.
The first game I ever watched of Orlando City was the 2013 USL Championship game against Charlotte. Being a part of the Brighthouse Network, I was able to watch the game. Not following the team before, I had never heard of the USL before let alone know the significance of the match. But it appeared to be important given the whole Championship being the in the title of the game. So I watched and was amazed by the atmosphere of the Citrus Bowl. It reminded me of a college football game. The way that 20,000 fans crowded into that stadium to cheer on not even a mls team was mesmerizing. It was enough to make a casual fan a diehard. It was a back and forth game those first twenty minutes until Charlotte scored a goal in the 20th minute. Then I became awe struck by the Orlando City striker. A player that put the team on his back. That player was Dom Dwyer, the Sporting Kansas City loanee that had returned to Orlando City for the USL championship game. Being a novice to Orlando City I had not seen Dwyer play before. Did not know his backstory or career arc. All I knew was that he was the best striker I had seen. He scored 4 goals in that game. Orlando would win that game and the USL championship. They also won a fan. That was the game that introduced me to the joys of being a Orlando City fan. It became like a drug.
Then a few weeks later Orlando City made a decision that solidified me as a fan. They announced that the franchise was becoming a MLS franchise in 2015. Finally there was a pro franchise in Orlando that the city could get behind. A franchise that the people of Orlando could point to and say "see we aren't just about Disney and Universal". A way to shake off the Mickey Mouse moniker. Before you even start, yes I know that the Orlando Magic has been established in the city since the 90s. However, The Magic were never really connected with the city. There is no true bond between the Magic and the city of Orlando. Not a true love between the city of Orlando and the Orlando Magic. This can be explained by the constant rebuilding the team has gone through and the petulant superstars that have wanted to leave Orlando and that franchise. So when Orlando City announced that they would join MLS, it was like the city finally had a pro franchise. One that could be embraced by the city.
I have always preferred the college atmosphere to the pro one. The pro experience is usually cold and not fun. Pro games are in fact typically quite boring. Fans go to the game, stay, then leave. There is no pageantry, no binding amongst fans. That was why college athletics are usually more fun. The experience becomes about the fans, the tailgating, and the bond that is shared by fans. You just don't typically get that with pro sporting events. I missed that when I graduated from college, sure there were the alumni tailgates and watch parties. But it was never truly the college experience. There was something missing. Then I saw the first game the Lions ever played in the MLS. It was like I was back in college. The way the fans packed into the stadium, the chants, the atmosphere. You could not ask for anything more. The way the Iron Law Firm and The Ruckus brought the passion to the game was something to behold. For someone that has never been to a Premier League match, the experience in Orlando is the closest thing to it in the MLS.
Of course none of this would have been possible had it not been for the organization and players. The way that President Phil Rawlins has endured the club to the fans and community is astonishing. There were of course doubts about if the club could succeed in the market. It would be reasonable given the potential distractions of theme parks and he fact that Orlando is not known as a sports hub. Yet, Rawlins would not let the club fail. When he moved the club to Orlando from San Antonio, he could have just sat back and be satisfied in the NSL. Instead he proclaimed that he would bring Orlando to the MLS. Well here is something shocking: a sports executive actually kept their promise as Rawlins did get Orlando into the MLS. He also built one of the strongest youth systems and drafted the likes of Cyle Larin.
Speaking of players there are so many players on this club that are easy to root for. Be it young talent like Break Shea, Cyle Larin, Darwin Ceren, and Riberiro. To former European star Kaka. All of them have endured themselves to the Orlando fans. Be it their play on the field or their work in the community outside of it, these players have become a part of Orlando. Their exciting style and pressing make the games fun to watch. Sure they may give up goals, but once they are on attack fans know that something spectacular is going to happen. That style of play comes from their manager Adrian "Inchy" Heath. The former Everton star has been with the club since the San Antonio days. He has been through the highs and lows of the club and his style have made him one of, if not the most loved figures in Orlando.
So on the eve of their opening day, I decided to write my favorite MLS club a love letter of sorts. A way to say thank you for all that the team has done and what they will do in the future.