For those who really enjoy their footy, the good news is Orlando is about to join the major professional ranks here in the USA thanks to a highly successful three-year campaign to build their fledgling team into a top-level, full-time contender.
Unlike back in Britain, there is no promotion and relegation through the various levels. The top level of football in America is Major League Soccer (or MLS), with just 19 current teams (a 20th, New York City, is lined up for 2015), and the only way in is to prove you have the set-up, finances, fan following and stadium to join the elite ranks.
Orlando City are “Our team,” an ambitious outfit playing their third season in the US Pro league, the nominal third tier of US soccer. But the tier is irrelevant if you have the combination of forward-thinking management and receptive local officials, who see the benefits of having another professional team on their turf.
And those elements have come together beautifully in recent weeks to give Orlando every reason to think a place in MLS is all but signed, sealed and delivered.
There are still two outstanding questions that will be answered in early September. 1) Will the County and City commissioners approve the finance deal recently agreed with Orlando City by county Mayor Teresa Jacobs and city Mayor Buddy Dyer? And 2) Will Orlando City get the green light from MLS to join in 2015 or ’16?
The elements are certainly aligned for this exciting development. City have been just about as successful as it’s possible to be on the field, winning the US Pro League in 2011, reaching the play-offs in 2012 and being poised for another play-off shootout at the end of this month. The addition of co-owner Flavio Augusto da Silva from Brazil has added significantly to their financial muscle and their fan base is solid and fervent, averaging more than 8,000 per game.
Both mayors are stridently in support of the complex public-private financial package that will go towards building an 18,000-capacity soccer-specific stadium on derelict land in downtown Orlando (just on the far side of the smart Amway Center). And, once the stadium deal is a full ‘Go!’, City’s admission credentials for MLS are complete.
In fact, on hearing news of the financial agreement, the league released its own statement, saying: “Major League Soccer is pleased to learn of Mayor Jacobs’ support. MLS continues to monitor the situation and is keeping in regular contact with Orlando City officials regarding the next steps. MLS encourages both the City and County Commissioners to follow Mayor Dyer and Mayor Jacobs’ recommendations and support funding for this exciting public-private partnership.”
The clear inference is, build the stadium and you’re in, guys! Orlando City hope it will be for the start of the 2015 season if everything sails through the necessary approvals, but there is the possibility they might have to wait until a year later.
There is certainly plenty of reason to think it is all but a done deal. Mayor Jacobs said recently: “We’re one of the few communities in the country that can build outstanding facilities. We are excited to be able to potentially bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Orange County.”
And city Mayor Dyer added: “This will net Orlando a big goal. With the addition of soccer, we’re marrying the world’s most popular game with the number one tourist destination.”
Orlando City president Phil Rawlins, who has been involved with the team from its inception and is also a board member of Stoke City back in England, insisted: “We are delighted to have the support of the tourism industry and the Tourist Development Council. We look forward to working with the County Board of Commissioners over the next few weeks as we make this thing a reality.”
The obvious plus for The City Beautiful is that it would give us yet another exciting element to the multi-faceted range of attractions we have here, and something else beyond just the theme parks to attract visitors. Soccer is obviously a ready-made choice for British visitors and the Brazilian ownership connection will ensure it’s popular with our South American tourists, too.
And, having been to a couple of games at the cavernous Citrus Bowl stadium where City currently play, we can say the mixture of Latin fan fervour, plus local and British support, is a powerful – and exciting – combination. You want samba drums and soccer? You’ve certainly got them here!
The target of 18,000 fans for each home game certainly shouldn’t be a stretch, and the chance to entertain Premier League teams in pre-season (i.e. July) is another attractive proposition.
The fact Adrian Heath – the former Stoke City and Everton star – is the team’s head coach is another little nudge in the direction of more UK fans, and you can be sure Orlando City will be looking to make themselves as attractive as possible to every British visitor as a great Saturday night ticket. It should be good, safe, family fun, too, as there is no such thing as hooliganism in US sports.
Simon continues to keep his sportswriting hand in with the likes of SkySports.com and the Guardian, and will certainly be keeping a close eye on developments in the coming weeks and months, so watch this space, as they say!
Restaurant Recommendation: In keeping with this week’s sports theme, our recommendation for a great place to keep up with everything that’s happening on the football front (or soccer, as the bartender will call it when you have a good banter with him or her during the game) is Wreckers Sports Bar in the Gaylord Palms resort. With one of the largest television screens in any bar in Orlando, and a multi-screen surround, you can watch 10 different sports if you’re so inclined. But you’re here for the footy. And the great food. And the beer selection. And a fun atmosphere that’s a bit more dignified than your average bar, but with all the camaraderie you’d expect when a major sporting event is showing.