Florida has been kicked around by critics for years as a place where professional soccer could not thrive. But as I wrote on Thursday, things have changed in three major Florida markets. Foremost among them is Orlando who played its first MLS game Sunday afternoon at a sold-out Citrus Bowl. The 62,510 that packed in to the venerable stadium to see Central Florida’s newest attraction were treated to aggressive counter-attacking soccer initially from the home team with Kaka pulling strings, while New York City FC’s midfield tried to assert themselves.
In the second half, the Lions created several dangerous chances in the first fifteen minutes but the insertion of promising youngster Khiry Shelton, who Orlando City passed over in the MLS Super Draft, led to NYCFC’s best stanza of the match. Mix Diskerud capped this period off with a spectacular goal, though quite frankly the US International was often in the wrong position during much of the match and it is difficult to see how he combines well with Frank Lampard come this summer.
NYCFC, benefitting from Diskerud’s good fortune and late sending off for Aurélien Collin, looked poised to record an inaugural victory before Kaka’s free kick right on the strike of minute 90 took a deflection and beat Josh Saunders. It was a fitting end to a festive day.
The build-up for the match was unlike anything a Florida city had ever seen. While in the late 1970’s, soccer had its day in Florida thanks to the short-lived local popularity of the state’s North American Soccer League teams, never before has a community embraced a local team the way Orlando City SC has been since the end of last season’s USL PRO season and the build up to the club’s Major League Soccer debut.
The Orlando market proved its worth for MLS not by having a famous owner interested in a team, a foreign club wanting to invest in the league or being the sexiest market in the country for expansion. They did it by embracing a lower division team and building incredible community support both among businesses and political leaders. Thus all ingredients were in the mixer for Orlando to perhaps replicate what we have seen happen in the Pacific Northwest over the course of the last several years – lower division teams with built in support and branding moving to the major league and building something that resembles a European club or an NFL team in terms of local infrastructure and local scope.
The support that was built organically burst at the seams this week prior to kickoff. Purple was in abundance in public places but disappeared from store shelves. Downtown Orlando was decked out in Orlando City SC branding, while people all over town wore purple during the course of the week.
For the first time in years, as a Floridian who gets around the state often, justifying myself as a single-sport soccer fan wasn’t difficult. In fact, the reception for all soccer press and those who have worked in the game like myself this weekend was like nothing I have ever seen in this state. Despite all the naysayers, today proved that soccer at the professional level is loved by Floridians and that the game is here to stay.
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