MLS has gone through a number of changes in the last 20 years and with every change another team has the chance to emerge as the new model club or face of the league. D.C. United filled that role in the early years as they filled up their trophy case with both domestic and international trophies.
As the first to five championships and the club that rewrote the acquisition rules with the signing of David Beckham, the LA Galaxy took over as the preeminent club shortly after the turn of the century and have remained in that position for the better part of the last decade. Although it certainly has not been held comfortably the entire time.
The MetroStars rebooted under new ownership as the Red Bulls and brought over Thierry Henry to make a push at being MLS's top dog. Sporting Kansas City saw their own rebrand boost the profile of soccer in the city and the expansion to the Pacific Northwest has proven to be widely successful in both Portland and Seattle.
While it can be argued that none have been able to quite knock the Galaxy from their lofty perch just yet (and being the defending MLS Cup champions strengthens that stance) the timing does seem right for another changing of the guard.
While it might seem far-fetched and too early to proclaim Orlando City SC as a contender for the face of the league, keep this in mind, the players union, with its demands of free agency, is currently challenging the very core of what it has meant to be an MLS club, and the Lions have positioned themselves very well in the court of public opinion to pounce once the new CBA is finalized.
It is very likely that when OCSC launches its first MLS regular season campaign, the league will be in uncharted waters for the first time since its inception, leaving the past behind and the future wide open for anything to happen.
The LA Galaxy are an old guard team, built with the benefit of single entity deals and often opaque acquisition rules. That is not to imply any negative connotation or diminish their accomplishments, but rather state that a new status quo is on the horizon. Past success is not guaranteed to carry over into the future.
Orlando City has seen its national profile steadily climb since the end of the final USL season. The Lions' quick rise from a Division 3 team to MLS club serves as an example and inspiration for other MLS hopefuls like Sacramento FC and Minnesota United FC. In addition, all of New York City FC's failures have served to highlight Orlando's success, making the lads in purple a model of expansion for the already accepted franchise in Atlanta.
MLS has been pushing for a stronger presence globally while still attempting to grow the game locally. Well, one would be hard pressed to find a team better suited to represent that goal than Orlando City. The Lions put in the effort during their time in the USL to cultivate a local following, but also were ready to expand their influence globally as soon as they made the jump to MLS.
With ties to Brazil and England throughout the club's ownership and the front office, the Lions have already begun capitalizing on their connections, signing several players from South America and the United Kingdom.
Orlando City's reputation is so outstanding at the moment, that even its former league, the newly rebranded and sharp looking USL, is pointing to the Lions' success as a reason to elevate the league to Division 2 status.
The Lions have all the right pieces in place to make a big splash in their first couple of seasons in MLS, starting, of course, with Kaká.
A big-name, well-recognized star has certainly proven to be an attention grabber in the past for MLS, and while Kaká certainly has done that, I think his impact will be even greater on the pitch than many outside experts suspect.
Yes, it can be said that he is past his athletic prime, but that does not mean he is past the point of playing elite level soccer for an MLS club. Robbie Keane, at 34 years old, is the reigning MLS and MLS Cup MVP. Like Keane, Kaká has given every indication that he is dedicated to his role on the field, despite the off-field attention his status in the world of football tends to require.
Kaká has shown a willingness to step up and be the ambassador the club needs him to be, while maintaining his focus on preparing for the challenges of the MLS season. These challenges are perhaps made more difficult by the off-season success.
Sure, the supporters and fans of the team already had their own set of expectations, but Orlando City is being set up on the national stage, and that brings expectations from the league and raises expectations for the non-local or casual fan.
With 10 games televised nationally on either ESPN or FOX Sports 1, the risk of being over exposed is real. However, if the Lions play well, and are entertaining and fun to watch (how could they not be?), the chance to win over the non-local and casual fans is huge.
Orlando City truly embodies what the league has stated as their intended goal: local growth and global recognition. The club nurtured its local following during the USL years and developed the foundation for global expansion, leading many soccer loving eyes to turn their gaze to the City Beautiful.
Ultimately, success on the field will be the determining factor, but all the work the club has done up to this point has the Lions in prime position to capitalize on what is sure to be an exciting first season.