Florida has often been seen as a soccer backwater, mocked by critics and misunderstood by fans across the United States. However on Sunday, the eyes of the nation will be fixed on Orlando as new MLS entry Orlando City SC makes its league debut in front of a crowd that will be upwards of 62,000.
Just a few weeks ago, the Jacksonville Armada FC began preseason play in the second division North American Soccer League (NASL) in front of nearly 14,000 fans. The Tampa Bay Rowdies, also of the NASL, have been able to also increase their local scope with ambitious ownership and an aggressive policy of signing the best players available either from NASL and MLS.
These three clubs have pushed support for professional soccer in the state of Florida to levels unseen since the late 1970’s when the previous incarnations of Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers were regularly selling out stadiums. But unlike those heady days of the original NASL, today’s pro clubs have real staying power, partly thanks to the ability to feed off one another.
No question exists that Orlando City’s quick rise from relocated third division team to MLS expansion team motivated many to follow and invest in the professional sport in Florida. Tampa Bay found new ownership in late 2013, and this past offseason signed several high-profile players and executives. Jacksonville was announced as an NASL expansion team in 2013 and has launched so successfully that many have favorably compared the Armada’s first few months to Orlando City’s similar lower-division launch in 2011.
Given where Orlando City has ended up, Jacksonville fans surely will be dreaming of MLS down the road. But at this point in time, the Armada are a critical anchor in the NASL, as the second-division league increases its professionalism and efforts to attract meaningful investments and sponsorship.
Fans across the state of Florida, long-starved for high-level local soccer, now have a plethora of options. Already, many fans in Southeast Florida — where MLS last had a team in 2001 — have opted to take the short 2.5 hour drive up Florida’s Turnpike to support Orlando City in 2015. Many fans in the Tampa Bay market, another place MLS abandoned in 2001, are also planning on flocking to Orlando for games. Still others in that market have been engaged by the Rowdies and will “stay home,” so to speak, in order to support the local second-division club .
One universal trait all three successful Florida professional clubs employed at an early stage of development was a real effort to engage fans who flocked to pubs on weekend mornings. Orlando City began doing this earnest during 2011 and Tampa Bay soon followed suit. Jacksonville, since launching, has done the same – so many Premier League and La Liga fans in the United States have no connection to the local game but the three Florida clubs have worked had to ensure this is not the case locally.
This Sunday, it’s possible over a thousand South Florida soccer fans will head north on Florida’s Turnpike for Orlando City’s MLS debut. Many of them flocked to Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium when Miami Fusion began play in 1998. On opening day in 1998, the Fusion had to turn away fans because Lockhart only could accommodate 20,000 people. But four years later, the team was gone and fans were displaced.
Many have waited for years for MLS to return to the state, and while David Beckham’s efforts in Miami continue, Orlando City will represent an adopted pro club for many South Floridians until Beckham’s team plays.
The sense of competition between fans of Tampa Bay and Orlando, in particular, with the two metropolitan areas separated by only about 40 miles of interstate highway, has become intense. Orlando’s success has driven Tampa Bay’s fans to more aggressively seek fans and promote the Rowdies as a local club. While this competition has led to lots of spats on social media and even some incidents between supporters of the club, for the most part it has been healthy and a strong motivator for both sets of fans.
Florida is largely a transient state, so developing community institutions that are meaningful to locals and soccer fans alike is a critical part of developing pride in the area. These three professional teams have all done a wonderful job of building something out of virtually nothing in the state of Florida.
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