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Orlando's Soccer Legacy: The 1990s Orlando Lions

Last week, we looked at the original Orlando Lions of the 1980s. This week, we will look at the 1990s attempt to bring the club back and push for top level soccer in Orlando.

The Orlando Lions team that took on German giants, Bayer Leverkusen
The Orlando Lions team that took on German giants, Bayer Leverkusen

As Orlando's first Lions were merged with the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in the old American Professional Soccer League for the 1990 season, the city found itself again without a professional soccer club.

By January 1992, plans were in the works to bring soccer, under the Lions moniker, back to Central Florida. Several familiar faces were part of the new Lions reboot, including the team's first coach, Mark Dillon, as well as a number of former players, including midfielder Ian Gill, defender Mike Garvanian, and former captain and defender Lou Karbiener.

A number of local standout players, including former Winter Park players Mike McEvoy and Kirk Mackey, and Oviedo High School player David Underwood, filled out the first year roster. Other players were pulled from local Rollins College and the University of Central Florida.

The original Lions left Orlando before the U.S. World Cup announcement, and Orlando's selection as a host city. The 1990s reboot was seen as a chance to capture the momentum of having the world's premier soccer event in Orlando.

The formation of a top level U.S. soccer league was a condition of FIFA awarding the cup to the United States Soccer Federation. Dillon calculated the new league would be looking for established clubs to fill the table, and sought to put Orlando in a favorable position to be awarded a franchise once the new league was formed.

Dillon was quoted in the Jan. 12, 1992 edition of the Orlando Sentinel. ''All of this has been in the planning stages since the day I left the Lions,'' said Dillon, who left the club in 1988 after being forced out. ''It's something I knew was going to happen. I don't know the end result."

The club signaled its intention to relaunch on the right foot with two high profile friendlies against top level European competition, first playing Swedish club IFK Goteberg at Lake Brantley High School, then German clubs FC 08 Homburg in Leesburg, and Bayer Leverkusen at University High School.

In 1992, the club began playing in the USISL, a precursor for the present day USL. USISL stood for United States Inter-regional Soccer League, United States International Soccer League, and United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues, depending on the year. As mentioned in last week's article, the period between the folding of the old NASL and the formation of Major League Soccer was a turbulent time for U.S. soccer, with an ever shifting landscape of teams and leagues.

The club started strong, finishing in first place in the Southeast division in both 1992 and 1993. In '93 the club  reached the final against Greensboro Dynamo, losing 2-1. The Lions went down a player in the 37th minute after Warren Russ received a red card. League points leader (19 goals, 7 assists) Sheldon Lee put Orlando ahead at the stroke of halftime. The 10-man Lions could not hold on, however, as Greensboro scored twice to seal the championship. Lee and Mackey were named to the All-League team that year, while Dillon was Coach of the Year.

USISL

For you promotion/ relegation fans, the USISL introduced a unique contest to consider clubs for membership in the league. The Southern Challenge Cup was a short season featuring four clubs. The contest allowed teams to test their club's infrastructure and ability to compete before the long season. A final game was played between the top two teams, with the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers beating the Birmingham Grasshoppers, 1-0.

Another unique aspect of USISL was the inclusion of an indoor season. The Lions competed in the indoor soccer league for three seasons.

The Lions made the USISL finals again in 1996. Symbolic of the club's struggles at this point, they did not opt to travel to Jackson, MS to compete in the four-team final tournament, despite having the best record in the league. School and work commitments prevented many players from being able to attend, meaning the club could not field an eligible team for the tournament.

In 1996, the American Professional Soccer League (the home of the Lions in the 1980s) and USISL merged to form the present day USL under MLS. Dillon applied for an expansion franchise in this league. The Orlando Sundogs (an Egyptian term for lion) became the next incarnation of Dillon's attempt to bring a top professional soccer club to the city. While his plans were ambitious, the Sundogs met a similar fate as the previous Lion teams. You can read an earlier article about the Sundogs here.

Dillon was in many ways like present day Orlando City SC owner Phil Rawlins in that he knew the potential the city and region had to support a professional soccer club. Dillon was ahead of his time. If you consider both Orlando and MLS in 1996, both were in need of maturation.

Many of the shortcomings that plagued Dillon's early attempts no longer existed in Central Florida by the time Rawlins arrived from Austin. Soccer and MLS have found their niche in the American sports landscape, and Orlando has shifted from a town of transplants and immigrants to become a thriving community eager to find an expression of civic pride.

I've never asked Rawlins about the process of naming the club. I'd imagine the name has a lot to do with this intersection of the past and the future. The "Lions" moniker is a nod to that past -- a show of respect for those teams who blazed the trail for soccer in Central Florida. Of course, the "City" part is meant to invoke that civic pride, just as it had done for Rawlins' hometown club, Stoke City.

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Research sources for this article include The Orlando Sentinel, the A League Archives, the International Soccer Archive, and of course my mom and dad, who took me to almost all of these games.