On Wednesday the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL challenged Orlando City to a friendly via Twitter. It's not unusual for a lower division team to challenge a top division team but what are the advantages for Orlando City?
It's been discussed by fans for years about having a statewide competition. Likely that competition would be between Orlando City and the state's four NASL teams of the Strikers, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Jacksonville Armada, and the upcoming Miami FC.
The four NASL teams have everything to gain and nothing to lose by playing the state's lone MLS squad. But it's not the same for the Lions. Before embarking on such a venture, they would have to determine whether such a tournament would be worth their time.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of playing these lower division teams?
Growing the Brand
As Orlando City continues to improve on the field, the team is also looking to grow off the field. Using their international connections, the club's owners have expanded the brand around the world. But that growth has to be done locally as well.
A large part of growing the brand of the club in Florida was the club's ability to have a television agreement with Fox Sports Florida and Sun Sports. This meant that every game would be shown on television statewide. With the club reportedly opting out of their deal with FOX 35 and finalizing a deal with WFTV, it's unknown if the Lions will still broadcast statewide in 2016.
By playing games, even if they're friendlies, in other cities around the state, Orlando City creates a connection with the local fan base of those areas. The ability for those fans to see players like Brek Shea, Kevin Molino, and Kaká live in their hometowns may spur them to make a bi-weekly trek to Orlando to see the team play more regularly.
Establish/Maintain Local Rivalries
In 2013, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orlando City agreed to play a home-and-home series dubbed the "I-4 Derby." The series formed a rivalry between the two clubs, the only local rivalry the Lions have had in their existence. When the Lions joined MLS for the 2015 season, the I-4 Derby stopped after only two years.
As American soccer has grown, so too has the importance placed on local rivalries. Every league uses them to promote their product. MLS even has a specific week dedicated to these games.
Orlando City is currently the only MLS team in the southeast, eliminating the possibility of having a local league rival. By playing annual games against one or several lower division teams, the Lions can create rivalries with local teams where fans can easily travel to the games.
These friendly matches could draw well if promoted correctly, allowing both sides to profit. Friendlies tend to draw fewer fans than league matches, but with two fan bases within driving distance, these types of matches could provide a financial boost for both clubs.
Expectation to Win
Probably the biggest impact these games would have on Orlando City deals with the expectation of the games. Being the bigger club, the Lions would be expected to win each game it played against these lesser foes.
As the underdogs, if any of the NASL teams were to defeat the Lions, it would be an accomplishment to brag about for the smaller outfit. However, it would not be viewed as such an accomplishment for Orlando City. The view of the result if the Lions should win would be that it was expected of them because they are the bigger club in a higher division.
Lack of Professionalism
The move from USL to MLS included several changes for Orlando City. One of those changes was the club's professionalism. Many clubs in NASL and USL are just trying to survive so their level of professionalism is of less importance. But in MLS, where the clubs are protected by the league's single-entity system, professionalism is much more important.
Part of growing the club's brand is improving the perception of the club around the world. When people view Orlando City, many will likely look at several aspects to see whether the club deserves their attention. They'll be looking at how professional the club appears.
The Lions' burgeoning academy, new reserve team, and upcoming soccer-specific stadium certainly help the perception of the club. Responding to challenges by lower division teams that care less about their professional perception may make the club appear less professional and therefore would damage the club's credibility worldwide.
Risk of Injury
As we've seen in 2015, friendlies can have unintended negative results. Orlando City lost Kevin Molino to a season-ending knee injury against Ponte Preta early in the season. Midfielder Harrison Heath sustained a knee injury in a friendly against West Bromwich Albion and missed a good chunk of the season as well. While teams should never play "scared" of injuries, they are a part of the game and any time you take the pitch, there's a risk. Losing a player is an unfortunate possibility that struck the Lions twice this season.
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There are multiple advantages and disadvantages for Orlando City in playing lower division teams. The question the club must answer is which are more important. What do you think? Should Orlando City play these lower division teams? Give us your opinion in the comment section.