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Orlando's Soccer Legacy: The 1980s Orlando Lions

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In another installment of our series on Orlando's soccer history, we look back to the late 1980s and the original Orlando Lions.

The 1986 Orlando Lions, the first to ever take on the dreaded Tampa Bay Rowdies.
The 1986 Orlando Lions, the first to ever take on the dreaded Tampa Bay Rowdies.
International Soccer Archive

Twenty-six years before Orlando City SC first took the field at the Orlando Citrus Bowl, another home town club launched professional soccer in the area. This is the story of the Orlando Lions, the first club to kick a ball in anger in the name of the City Beautiful.

The Lions were founded in 1985 as an amateur club by Rollins College Head Coach Mark Dillon and Lake Howell High School soccer coach Steve Nash. As an amateur club, the goal was to build with local college players from the University of Central Florida and Rollins College and build toward a top tier U.S. club.

The Lions' first match was a friendly against the Tampa Bay Rowdies on Feb. 22, 1986. The former NASL club was stacked with talent, but the amateurs held their own in front of the 4,200 fans that showed up to Lake Brantley High School. The Rowdies prevailed in the end, 1-0.

A series of exhibitions against clubs from around the world helped solidify the club locally. The 1986 "World Series" featured match-ups against Germany's Hamburg, Scotland's Dundee United, Ireland's Glentoran FC, the Canadian Men's National Team, and a North American Soccer League All-Star Team. The Lions lost all of the matches competitively, except for an impressive 1-1 draw with Hamburg.

Following the "World Series" games and another close loss to the Rowdies, the Lions faced more international competition. This round saw more success, with the club winning against Oxford, National Westminster, SV Wehen Weisbaden, and Universidad Catolica. The Lions wrapped up their first "season" of exhibition matches and began looking for a league.

Its important to remember the years between the folding of the NASL and the founding of MLS were turbulent ones, as leagues were founded and folded in quick succession.

The Orlando Lions joined the American Soccer League in 1988. The ASL had three different incarnations. The 1988 version was the third of these leagues. The ASL was an East Coast league that operated as a counterpart to the Western Soccer Alliance. The league included former NASL clubs Washington Diplomats, Tampa Bay Rowdies, and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Other clubs hailed from New Jersey, Miami, Baltimore, Boston, Albany, and a second Washington club.

The Lions finished second to last in the Southern Division with a record of 8-12. Orlando came in six points behind the Rowdies, and a full 12 points ahead of the last place Miami Sharks. Defender Lou Karbiener and goalkeeper Alan Rough were both named to the 1988 All-ASL Team and the club had an average attendance of 2,736. The Lions were 2-1 against the rival Tampa Bay Rowdies, with one of the wins coming via penalties following a regulation draw.

A second successive fourth-place finish in the Southern Division marked another unsuccessful year in the ASL in 1989. Orlando did manage two wins and one penalty kick loss to Central Florida rivals Tampa Bay. U.S. National Team player and current soccer commentator Christopher Sullivan featured for the club before going to the 1990 World Cup and transferring to Hungarian club Győri ETO FC.

Orlando finished third in the division in 1990.

1990 was the first year that the ASL and the Western Soccer Alliance began operating collectively as the American Professional Soccer League. In 1989, the champions from both leagues played a final match, but 1990 saw them actively marketing themselves as a national league. Despite the combined leagues, the ASL and WSA kept their formats and clubs played teams from their own league.

Then-majority owner Colin Phipps took action to merge the Orlando Lions with the Fort Lauderdale strikers during the off-season. Quoted in the Orlando Sentinel on Nov. 22, 1990, he said, "I'm disappointed because I'd love to keep the franchise in Orlando, but business is business. Orlando is a wonderful place, but there is just too much else going on."

Poor attendance plagued the final season in the ASL for the Lions. While previous season set marks above 2,000, the final season saw an average of 1,100 fans in the Florida Citrus Bowl. It was this lack of attendance and no strong local sponsorship that sealed the fate of the franchise in the end.

The club was officially merged with the Strikers before the American Professional Soccer League's 1991 season. The original Lions and the vision of Mark Dillon were ahead of their time, both in terms of reestablishing professional soccer after the demise of the NASL and Orlando's growth and ability to support a club. Attendance and local corporate support were both cornerstones of Orlando City's push for MLS during their years in the USL.

A second professional club, and a more successful one, would re-emerge in Orlando under the Lions moniker in 1992. More on that team next week.

Having been a supporter of both the original Lions and Orlando City, I can say the experience has been completely different. Lions games were dominated by hordes of youth soccer teams, along with parents and coaches. While Orlando City certainly has youth players and their families as part of their fan base, the attendance is diversified to multiple demographics: the all-important 18-35 age group that has pushed MLS's recent success, along with first and second generation immigrants from countries with ingrained soccer cultures.

The success of Orlando City, and the failures of the Orlando Lions are reflective of both the times and Orlando's growth as a city.

For this story, I must credit the following sources: The Orlando Sentinel, the A League Archives,  the International Soccer ArchiveThe Scoring Third, and of course my mom and dad, who took me to almost all of these games.