Florida has been kicked around long and hard by the critics over the years. Often seen as a pro soccer wasteland and a place that could not support the American pro game, the state has been the biggest storyline of this year’s young professional soccer season.
Orlando City SC, who made the jump from third-division USL Pro to top-flight Major League Soccer (MLS), has turned heads with consistently high attendances. The Lions followed up a full house of 62,000 for its opening game with two crowds over 31,000, which is essentially a sellout of the lower bowl. The Lions have entertained with their open style of football and the brilliance of Kaka.
While the results thus far this season have been frustrating especially given the quality Orlando has shown on the pitch, the enthusiasm for the team locally has yet to wane. This is surprising to many critics who thought the energy and popularity of the Orlando team would last for one or two games at the most.
Perhaps more surprising is the success of lower-division teams in the state this year. The Tampa Bay Rowdies have yet to open the season, but the club has intensified its marketing effort locally and even opened a team branded pub in downtown St Petersburg. The Rowdies compete in the second-division North American Soccer League (NASL), which boasts two other Florida-based sides.
The Jacksonville Armada FC played its first ever competitive match Saturday night at Everbank Field. In total, 16,164 fans attended the match against FC Edmonton, a new NASL record. The Armada were, surprisingly, 3-1 winners. The Armada has consistently drawn well during the preseason, demonstrating an enthusiasm for the team and sport, meaning Saturday’s number does not reflect a simply one-off event. The club will move to a smaller ground for the remainder of the NASL Spring Season, but should still draw on average between 7,000 and 8,000 for games going forward.
Maybe the most unexpected development has been the quick success of Fort Lauderdale’s Strikers in turning a sour offseason into a potentially positive season. The club, which has long struggled to consistently draw fans at the level of the top NASL teams on Saturday, shattered the team’s single-game attendance mark with 11,691 on hand to watch a 1-0 loss to the New York Cosmos. The Strikers formula has been to engage South Florida’s massive Brazilian community, and the early returns on that effort has been very positive. While the rollout of the announcement of Ronaldo as the team owner was largely botched and amateurish, the legendary goal scorer has to be credited with much of the upsurge in interest toward a club that many did not realize even existed six months ago.
For all these clubs, the long hot Florida summer will prove to be a challenge. But the base is clearly there to make the state almost a slimmed down east coast version of the Pacific Northwest. Florida has been written off time and again, but now in 2015 it appears the state has not only taken to the beautiful game, but is taking fandom for the sport to a whole higher level.
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