Anybody who has ever visited an American city is well aware that the presence of a major league sports team is a quintessential part of the city’s identity and culture. Unlike in European countries where promotion and relegation gives top leagues a slightly different table (that’s soccer speak for “standings”) every year, gaining a major league franchise is like winning an Olympic bid in the United States. An ownership group dedicated to the city has reached out to the governing body of the highest level the sport has to offer with promises of attendance numbers and stadium deals, and the league grants an omnipresent seat at the top rung of the ladder. Thus, major cities across the United States and Canada are often classified by the sports team and its impact on the identity of its home city. We have baseball and hockey towns, we have football and basketball schools, and we have charts showing geographical fan alliance by county based on social media preferences. The major league sports award the major league teams, which then cultivate a symbiotic relationship with their major league cities.
Ladies and gentlemen, entering the game as a substitution: Orlando. America’s soccer town.
My analysis of the typical Floridian city as a conglomeration of people with varying backgrounds that only wish for their desired cultural norms with a little sunshine sprinkled on top is no secret. Everybody knows which cartoon mouse brought infrastructure and prosperity to the otherwise alligator and palmetto bug-laden central Florida. These loose ties between Floridian cities and their residents make it hard for major league teams to establish themselves and build an allegiant fan base. Baseball teams in Tampa Bay and Miami are always toward the bottom in league attendance, and the Jacksonville Jaguars are always rumored to be moving somewhere. Even the Division I college and major league teams in Orlando by no means have a large market. That being said, the approach taken by the Orlando City Soccer Club to build a fan base and establish itself puts the definition of an American major league team on its head.
To give some background, OCSC moved to Orlando from Austin in 2011 as a member of the league formerly known as USL PRO (which is the league the Tulsa Roughnecks joined this year). The team was wildly successful, taking two regular season and postseason titles in its first three years in Florida. In late 2013, after showing dedication by the ownership group and the promise of a new stadium, the city of Orlando was awarded a franchise by Major League Soccer which would take the same name and roots as the minor league team. The coach and ownership group remained the same, and a few players were signed to MLS contracts despite having to play in USL PRO for one more year. A few months and international marquee signings later, Orlando City sold out the 62,000-seat Citrus Bowl for their opening match as a member of Major League Soccer and led all MLS teams with seven international call-ups among its roster at the end of March. Any team can sell out a single opening match, but is it a fad that will eventually go away (as it did with MLS in Tampa Bay and Miami) or does it have a place in the social fabric of the city?
Friday afternoon before the match, I spent the day in a suburb of the remarkably-sprawled city of Orlando. It had its traditional Floridian characteristics: red-faced families seeking out coffee and frozen yogurt balancing out the retirees with nothing better to do than visit an art museum dedicated to Tiffany glass before popping into the combination wine-and-dog-toy shoppe. However, the third mix to this typical makeup was a presence of those proud to be soccer fans. The occasional purple shirts with the Orlando City Lion logo popped up in increasing numbers during the afternoon, culminating as my parents and I boarded the commuter rail into downtown with several other OCSC supporters. Even though I have lived in major league cities and been a fan of major league teams for several years, I found myself caught off-guard upon seeing that people considered this soccer team such an integral part of their identity. Only major league teams in major league cities pull that off.
We get downtown and are immediately greeted by an incredible pregame buzz. From the dive bars to the fine restaurants, the concern for all patrons and employees was whether or not they were going to the game and whether or not Orlando City was going to beat MLS juggernaut D.C. United that evening. Thousands of people were preparing for the match downtown, all of them catching free bus service to the Citrus Bowl as gametime neared. So many factors were creating a truly unparalleled environment: The sheer number of people all in Orlando City gear (an Arsenal or Bayern Munich jersey wasn’t good enough), the upbeat music (we passed three DJs between downtown Orlando and the stadium entrance), the massive banners hung on the stadium’s exterior (even though the team will only be playing there for one year). Orlando City was going all-out to garner everyone’s attention, and it was working amazingly well.
The Florida sun drifted westward and fans found their places, a middle school choir sang the National Anthem, and the game was underway. The supporters’ section(s) which held more people than could fit in Tulsa’s ONEOK Field began their routine chants, loud enough that their shouts of “¡Vamos, vamos Orlando! Esta noche, ¡tenemos que ganar!” mixed with several drum beats was shaking the place. Above this expression was the other necessity of a major league team that is often underappreciated: The ability and desire of its fan base to be critical of the team’s performance. The crowds I was around in Tulsa and Jacksonville were there to support the team, often allowing their focus to shift elsewhere as the performance of the game could get a bit lackluster at times. Appropriate attire to these events is a soccer jersey of any kind, just to show appreciation for the sport as a whole. Major league games have a much different vernacular. The fans around me (British to my right, Central American in front of me) were dissecting every move, tactical positioning, and action similarly to the advanced critic visiting a five-star restaurant or a new international art exhibition. Great works of art are done in order to be critiqued as much as they are to be enjoyed, and this game was no different. Minor league teams do not achieve this sort of attention because the players are transient, merely passing through on their way to the show. The Orlando City fans who had seen them as a USL PRO team knew this and were obviously proud of what they were witnessing, even if they were voicing it through an array of criticisms.
Orlando City controlled the pace of much of the game, despite having their primary striker subbed out early in the first half due to injury. The fans would rise and they would sit back down in unison, cheered along as much by the players on the pitch as by the rowdy supporters. Atmospheres like this cannot be pumped in or brought to life by a PA announcer. They can only be cultivated through experience and dedication, the accumulation of understanding of how the sport works deeply enough to not only get a sense of the brush strokes on the canvas but to feel as if they are the painter.
In the midst of so many dangerous attacks and missed chances, the crowd of nearly 40,000 didn’t know how to react when a D.C. free kick cleared the middle of the Orlando City defensive wall and found the back of the net in the second minute of second-half stoppage time. Everyone in the stadium (save about 25 D.C. fans) was deflated for the evening–but no less supportive of their team. Those same rowdy supporters continued their (drunkenly) spirited chanting aboard the buses back downtown and aboard the commuter rail back to their homes, knowing that their team was going to win more games than they were going to lose.
This single game experience verified more than I expected that Orlando City is a major league team and Orlando is a soccer city. In an age in which the rich seem to be getting richer and allowing their funds to contribute to art and sport in those major-league caliber American cities, the bottom-up approach that OCSC has taken to their perch shows how a small-market team can gain such a position among its own city’s identity and social fabric. Any true fan of any top-tier team find an aspect of their team that seems to complete their own identity–their mood can be shifted by the performance or actions of a particular player or the team as a whole. Though new to the scene in this country, there is no reason that Major League Soccer can create the same sort of inspiration among its own member cities. It just might be doing it in a way that America has yet to see or understand.
As an avid sports fan, I have grown to appreciate what a professional soccer scene in the United States can provide to the industry as a whole. The structure of European leagues which emphasizes team performance over movement of players through teams of set tiers offers a sense of direction and drive that could be captured very easily by mid-level cities across the United States striving for national attention. The way teams from other continents are run often takes on a much more democratic feel in which supporters’ groups have a strong effect on the inner workings and decision of the team, something that should come naturally to any American metropolis for obvious reasons. Several of these concepts, from movement through tiers and gaining entry into a “Champions League” of sorts by winning a lesser tournament, are captured in college sports already.
Again, I will admit that I’m nothing but a soccer fan who likes to write. Honestly, professional soccer in the United States probably can’t become the world-class league that other sports in this country have achieved. But that doesn’t mean the overarching principles of the sport and the social impact it can induce can’t be something impactful at the single-city scale and egalitarian at the international scale. The growth of this sport in the United States and seeing what American societies can bring to it via a bottom-up approach is something that, if practiced across multiple disciplines in this nation, can make an impact stretching much farther than a single soccer pitch, single city, or single nation.