There is something spectacular happening in Orlando. It isn’t happening at Disney World, and it isn’t happening in Universal Studios’ Island of Adventure. It’s happening a couple miles away at the Citrus Bowl, where a successful soccer franchise has finally emerged in the Southeast. After the early MLS failures of the Miami Fusion, and Tampa Bay Mutiny, the best part about this experiment is that this technically isn’t year one of the project. If years spent in lower divisions of soccer have proven anything, it’s that Orlando City has a ravenous fan base that’s here to stay. Here are some other reasons why.
This past week Orlando City SC announced its revised plan for a soccer specific stadium in downtown Orlando. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the new plan will cost $155 million, is privately funded in its entirety, and will now increase capacity to 25,500 from the original plan that involved only 19,500 seats. From the presentation it was announced that this stadium will house 31 premium seats, it will have all four sides covered by a roof, and with its new capacity will be the 3rd largest soccer specific stadium in Major League Soccer behind Toronto’s BMO Field, and LA’s Stubhub Center.
According to Fox Sports, the plan will be completed in 12-14 months, and the team also purchased 12 acres around the stadium site for a fan zone. While attendance this season has currently been averaging 31,105 after 10 home games, (not including a sell-out crowd of over 62,000 at Orlando City’s MLS home opener to NYCFC) team president Phil Rawlins stated that it would not be possible to fit more than 25,500 in the new stadium due to the space available and the existing infrastructure of the area in downtown Orlando. He also announced that the stadium will be hosting not just soccer, but also rugby events, lacrosse events, as well as concerts. This is an interesting wrinkle to the story as historically, most MLS venues have stuck to soccer with few exceptions.
This news marks not just a victory for MLS expansion into the Southeast, but also a victory for the loyal fans. Orlando City started its MLS life with a solid fan base already in place that proudly boasted its role as “built, not bought.” This fan base, combined with a venerable re-branding effort, and team on the field are producing positive results that can’t be ignored. Perhaps the best aspect of Orlando City is its monopoly on the color purple. No other club in the league dons a uniform with hints of purple, yet two planned expansion clubs in Los Angeles and in Atlanta have both signified their plans to use a black and red color scheme. D.C. United, a team with a decorated history in the league already wears black and red. Even in New York, NYCFC not only mimics its parent club, Manchester City, but also Sporting KC, an already established club in the league that has worn light blue for years. If imitation is the best form of flattery, MLS teams are complimenting each other far too often.
In even more good news, as part of Orlando Weekly’s 2015 edition of Best in Orlando, Orlando City SC was named best sports team in Orlando (with the Magic as the only other major league franchise), best new thing in Orlando, best tailgating, and even “best salvaging of a stadium deal.” According to the team’s website, these categories were voted on by both readers and writers of the periodical.
As the shovels dig into the ground in downtown Orlando, one can only hope that the original team in Orlando is not just seeing this spike in attendance as a result of Kaka-mania or inaugural season fever. If so, then 19,500 might be a more realistic figure to strive for after all. When the grounds open in 2016, we’ll see if the Lions are the next market with sellout crowds every night in MLS. But until then, let’s just raise a toast to a rare success story of soccer in the Southeast.