When over 60,000 Orlando City fans crammed into the Citrus Bowl for the club’s inaugural Major League Soccer match on March 8, it was a chance for the Lions and their fans to announce themselves to the nation.
Minutes before the game against NYCFC kicked off, the Iron Lion Firm and the Ruckus draped a tifo over the supporters' section. It featured a lion atop three skulls, with the logos of the Jacksonville Armada, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers emblazoned across them. The message was clear: Orlando City had arrived in MLS, and the rest of the Sunshine State was officially on notice.
With Wednesday’s announcement that Miami will be awarded an NASL club in 2016, it’s looking less likely that a David Beckham-owned MLS team is headed to South Beach anytime soon.
On Wednesday, our Sean Rollins wrote a piece about how the lack of an MLS rival in Miami doesn’t affect Orlando City, and he’s absolutely right. The club’s local popularity has already gained national recognition, and that’s certainly not contingent upon another MLS club playing 200 miles to the south.
But the tifo on March 8 revealed a rivalry that’s already present between Orlando City and the other six professional soccer clubs in Florida. Even though these teams could only meet in preseason exhibitions or in U.S. Open Cup play, Orlando City’s genesis in USL allowed the club to develop rivalries with other mid-tier soccer teams.
And when Orlando City fans were given a national platform before the club’s first MLS games, they chose to call out their long-time rivals in the soccer equivalent of a tifo "mike drop."
The Lions would be foolish to abandon these rivalries just because they've risen to the top of the U.S. soccer pyramid. An Orlando City-Rowdies U.S. Open Cup game would be as intense a contest as you’ll find in North American soccer. That being said, Orlando is currently in the market for an MLS rival and it’s looking like Beckham and friends might not be able to provide that anytime soon.
Let me be clear, Orlando City doesn’t need an in-state MLS rivalry. The lack of a Sunshine State derby certainly isn’t deterring any players or fans from joining the club.
But an MLS rival in their home state would provide Orlando City fans with even more opportunities to support their team and enjoy the experience you can only get following MLS.
One of the obvious benefits would be easier travel. Seattle Sounders fans pack CenturyLink Field for home games, but Cascadia Cup matches against Portland and Vancouver will provide them with three opportunities to see their team play only a couple hours away this season. NYCFC fans will have six opportunities to see their team play less than seven hours from the Big Apple in 2015, not to mention two derby games against the New York Red Bulls.
Given a nearby opponent, it wouldn’t take long for Orlando City to cultivate a rivalry based on the sheer numbers of traveling fans. Just look at this year's preseason tournament in Charleston. Remember this?
photo credit: @FixtureWire
And that was a six-hour drive away.
Plus, the length of the MLS season and the fact that 60 percent of conference teams are guaranteed a playoff spot can leave supporters searching for something to look forward to in the middle of the summer. The chance to compete for a trophy with another Florida team could provide Lion fans with something to get excited about before the final playoff push really gets underway in the fall.
For now, Orlando would be wise to continue cultivating their rivalries with existing Florida clubs. The U.S. Open Cup could very well pair the Lions with an in-state rival at some point in the near future, and this would give the club a great chance to renew acquaintances with long-time foes.
Ultimately, Orlando City doesn't need a Florida rival to be successful. The club has already proven it is more than capable of supporting itself. But it's hard to argue that a hated rival wouldn't make this brave new MLS world even more exciting for the Lions and their fans.