The day that we have all been waiting for is finally here! At 5 p.m. today, there will be 62,000 people packed into the Orlando Citrus Bowl, raucously supporting the Orlando City Soccer Club as they play New York City Football Club in their inaugural game in Major League Soccer.
With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to take you all back in time to the oh-so-long-ago past of 2011, when the Orlando City SC Lions first came to town and played their inaugural USL Pro home opener against another New York club, F.C New York.
First of all, a little history for those of you just starting to follow the club. Back in 2010, Orlando City Soccer Club was actually the Austin Aztex, based in Austin, TX. The club had been around since 2008 in the lower divisions of the U.S. soccer pyramid and was owned and operated by our beloved Phil Rawlins and coached by Adrian Heath.
However, the team was stuck in a rut. They weren't able to get the attendance to fill their 6,500-seate stadium (average attendance was 2,974 in 2009, and 3,733 in 2010), and they hadn't had any on-the-field success.
Phil decided a change needed to be made. He purchased the USL rights to Orlando and moved the franchise, its coaching staff, and the entire team to Orlando, with the intent of having an MLS franchise "within 3-5 years."
At the time, this seemed like crazy talk, however, now the move to Orlando will probably go down in U.S. soccer history as the greatest decision ever made. For without that decision, today would not be happening.
So, Phil relocated the team, changed the name, and the Orlando City Lions were born.
Prior to the start of the 2011 season, Orlando City played several preseason friendlies at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports venue, against teams like Toronto FC and B.K. Hacken, but, with an unknown and unproven lower-division team, the initial attendance at those games was sparse.
Previous attempts at professional soccer franchises in Orlando had folded under the weight of soccer's long-suffering uphill battle for popularity with American sports fans. But times were changing. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa finally allowed the sport to gain traction in North America, and with it came a new awareness that soccer is a really fun game (once TV broadcasters figured out how to earn advertising dollars in spite of the lack of commercial breaks).
Personally, I was born and raised in England, and soccer (football, as I used to call it) has always been a huge part of my life. As a Newcastle United fan by birthright, I fondly remember trips to St. James' Park on match day, sitting in the stands with 50,000 fans, cheering on my team.
Then, in 2008, I met my wife and moved to Orlando. Those first few years were hard. I had learned every trick in the book to find English Premier League games online and probably committed a few licensing violations in the process.
When I first heard that Orlando was getting a soccer team, I was so excited -- but I didn't want to get my hopes up. What if I fell in love, but no one else did? I just had to hope there were enough die-hard fans like myself who would also show up to support a few crazy Brits who thought they could bring soccer to the swamp. I wasn't going to take any chances. Before even seeing the first game, I bought season tickets, hopefully demonstrating my unwavering support for this new venture.
And so, on April 9, 2011, I turned up at the Citrus Bowl, with my wife in tow, and held my tickets in my hand like I was going into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. I was one of the first people in the queue at the Citrus Bowl that day, eager to get the free t-shirt that they were giving away to the first 1,000 people through the gate. I figured that, just in case the club didn't survive, at least I could say I was there.
Once inside, we were swarmed by people giving away free stuff and the tiny Orlando City tent which was giving away flyers, soliciting everyone to come to the next game. I made my way up to the end of the bowl, Section 121, and behind the football goal posts that they couldn't even be bothered to move, and we took our seats.
I chatted with the two guys sitting next to me, Rick and Gary. Gary, also a Brit, and a Birmingham City fan, had lived in Florida for 15-plus years and had dragged his brother-in-law, Rick, a Florida native, to the preseason games at Disney. Rick had become hooked. "And so it begins," I thought.
FC New York was also playing their first game when they came out on the field that day. Standing to our left was a small but excited group of fans, calling themselves the Iron Lion Firm, who had brought a few drums, some banners, and started chanting.
To our right, in the next section over, were another group, who had skulls on their banners and the words "Ruckus." Over, on the right sideline of the stadium, was a group of musicians with steel drums and percussion instruments. When the stadium announcer came over, he called out each group, who chanted and yelled, and the "Rhythm Section" played their drums.
What seemed cheesy at the time is now nostalgic. The announcer came over the PA periodically to announce, "It's an Orlandooo City corner kick!" At halftime, the Orlando City Girls, the team's dance troop, came out and gyrated to music piped through the stadium. It was all so surreal and yet so perfect. It was my game of football, but dressed up American-style.
7,933 people showed up to watch that first game. Max Griffin and Yordany Alvarez both scored, and Orlando came away with a 3-0 win. With 90 minutes of fantastic football and a home team that enjoyed the taste of winning, I went home happy.
Today, I hope we can repeat this victory over another freshman New York City team. The City Girls won't be there -- the crazy graphic they used for the yellow cards won't be either -- but the screaming fans chanting out their devotionals to the Lions squad will be. Even one of the original players from that first game will in all likelihood be on the pitch.
Thank You Phil Rawlins and Coach Heath. You have no idea what a gift you have given to this city and the people in it. There's a reason football is beloved around the world. We all hold the memories of our first match so dearly in our hearts.
If today is your first game, breathe it in. Remember the sounds and the people and laughs and the jeers. This is why we are here, after all.