Listener Blog Submission
By Simon Veness (https://www.facebook.com/DefyingExpectationsOrlandoCity/)
Seven years ago, Orlando’s newest major league team burst into life, selling out the 62,510-seat Citrus Bowl (as it was still called back then) and bringing a city to the edge of sporting ferment.
The team’s debut game drew international interest, included two genuine world superstars on the field, and unarguably put The City Beautiful on the global soccer map.
Seven years later, the team is coming off its most successful season to date, it has re-stocked with new talent, it was a picture-perfect day, and yet it drew only 21,283 fans, some 4,000 short of Exploria Stadium’s capacity.
And, while it generated its own supplement (well, two-and-a-half pages anyway) in Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel, it was a far cry from the publicity Orlando City generated back in 2015 when you could easily have been convinced the famous “Fill The Bowl” game was the ONLY game in town.
Fortunately for the 21,283 in attendance yesterday, the on-field product didn’t disappoint, with a 2-0 win over Montreal that was conclusive, fully deserved, and (largely) easy on the eye, in the same way that a full fridge of beer remains a reassuring sight.
But the team and its followers could be forgiven for wondering if they have transgressed some Central Florida law that says ‘Thou shalt not steal publicity away from the Magic.’
Sure, the early novelty of the Citrus Bowl days was unlikely to stay at those stratospheric levels, but you would expect a home opener on a gorgeous day with no obvious competition and realistic hopes of an even better season than 2022 to sell out a 25,000-capacity stadium.
True, the atmosphere was still wonderfully purple-hued and electric, and the inhabitants of The Wall remain an eternal example to sporting fans everywhere. But those missing 4,000 on a banner day for the team would worry me if I was the owning Wilf Family, having just plowed multi-millions into re-stocking for a renewed push at the Holy Grail of MLS success.
Why wasn’t it a sell-out (as it was in 2015, ’16, ’17, ’18 and ’19); why wasn’t the city abuzz with soccer chatter; and why wasn’t there any significant coverage in the Sentinel until the day of the game (and the Magic still comfortably exceeded those column inches in the course of the week)?
The latter question is especially vexing as the Sentinel has been a solid supporter of the sport in our city for much of the past seven years, but seemingly abdicated its soccer-writing responsibilities towards the end of 2021.
Is it the team’s fault, for not bringing more success sooner, for burning through three head coaches in five years, or for not giving away more of those purple bumper magnets that seemed to be on every car in 2015 (remember them?).
We could certainly debate the reasons ad infinitum, but the bottom line is there’s no set answer just now. The reality is that a lot of different factors have combined to deprive the team of the oxygen of publicity in the last couple of years, not least an unwanted visitor called the coronavirus.
But, if we stay virus-free (and that remains a fervent prayer), this season will certainly be a litmus test for just how much of a market there remains for Major League Soccer since those heady days of mighty ’15.
If the team builds on the successes of the last two seasons and still doesn’t gain any more traction, that will be a sure sign MLS has hit the glass ceiling, a meteorite that flamed out after a brilliant initial passage across the Sunshine State’s sporting cosmos.
And, looking at the season-opening victory, what are the chances of that, you ask? (Well, someone might).
The one thing you can conclude about the first game of any season is that you can’t draw major conclusions. What you can do is your best Sam Spade impression and look for clues, and there were plenty on an unseasonably hot afternoon at Exploria Stadium.
We saw four new players in action for City, three of them new to Orlando and the other, Alexandre Pato, returning after an injury-plagued 2021. All made decent impressions and suggested the team won’t suffer unduly from the loss of Nani, Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller from last year.
In fact, Pato could quickly make fans forget about Dike if he builds on his opening 76 minutes against Montreal. His link-up play was sharp, his hold-up play was impressive, and his positional play was totally on point. He has that largely unteachable skill of knowing what space to occupy, and when, and his first Orlando goal—the crucial opener—could well be the forerunner of plenty more if he stays fit. He could easily be Orlando’s answer to Raul Ruidiaz at Seattle, and that’s a distinctly high bar.
Elsewhere, new record signing Facundo Torres was lively and energetic, with a good touch and a nose for getting involved in the build-up play; Cesar Araujo proved a reliable force in the defensive midfield in place of Junior Urso (and I can’t wait to see Araujo partner Urso on a regular basis); and towering Austrian striker Ercan Kara looked like he could be a physical handful for opposition defenses throughout the league.
Even better, in many ways, key players like new captain Mauricio Pereyra, Antonio Carlos, Joao Moutinho, and Pedro Gallese looked suitably renewed and ready to underwrite a championship challenge in 2022.
And, hopefully, this time next year I won’t have to bleat about how unfair it is that the eternal losers resident at the Amway Center still get more coverage than Orlando City!