JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Orlando City is a young club, in just its fifth season, after spending four years in USL Pro from 2011 to 2014, yet it has already accomplished so much. Five trophies in four seasons -- two USL championships and three regular season titles -- put the Lions on the map heading into MLS.
One of the men in the middle of all that success over four seasons was goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo, the first player Head Coach Adrian Heath signed to the then-Austin Aztex, before the team moved to Orlando two years later.
Gallardo built a special connection with the fans with his outstanding play -- he was named Goalkeeper of the Year in USL Pro in 2011 -- and the trophies he helped bring to Orlando.
On September 16, 2014, Gallardo was one of 13 players let go by Orlando City as part of its transition into MLS. Hardly a month later, he signed with Jacksonville Armada FC, a brand new expansion franchise in the NASL, as the first player in club history.
"I made a lot of friends there [in Orlando]." Gallardo told The Mane Land, after playing the first 45 minutes of a 4-2 loss to Boca Juniors on Saturday night in an international friendly at EverBank Field. "Not just my teammates, but the front office, the people in Orlando, my family, and fans that were so loyal. There was so much love than anywhere else in Orlando and it was very difficult for me to leave, but I believe everything happens for a reason. Now I'm here with Jacksonville Armada and super thankful they gave me a chance."
Gallardo, 30, said he was contacted by a handful of clubs immediately after the news broke that he would not be continuing with Orlando City, and was very close to signing with a new club before an opportunity in Jacksonville presented itself at the last minute.
"I was already going to go sign with another team, but I received a phone call from Jacksonville and I realized they were really close to Orlando, where I had a lot of friends and family, a girlfriend, and a baby, so it made sense for me and my family at the time," he said. "That was the main reason why I came here, but once I came here and saw their plan, I realized the ambitions of the ownership group and it got me even more excited. It just kind of all came together perfectly; all the reasons why I would have chosen a club here in Jacksonville. I'm just so fortunate that it's so close to Orlando, where I have a lot of family and a lot of friends."
Having been a part of start-up club in both Austin and Orlando, being a part of an entirely new franchise is nothing new to Gallardo, who says he's already seeing things in Jacksonville that he didn't see before.
Led by Jacksonville businessman Mark Frisch and former MLS player Darío Sala, the Armada have a built a passionate and constantly growing fan base that has already set the modern era NASL record for regular season attendance (16,164) in a game against FC Edmonton at EverBank in April, and averaged the second most fans per game (9,758) during the NASL spring season, while playing in a baseball stadium.
"All modesty aside, I like to think of myself as a club man, someone that the people from the club identify the club with; someone that tries to represent the club the best way that I can on and off the field." Gallardo said about being the Armada's first player. "I saw an opportunity here with Jacksonville Armada to come and create the culture, to help create the identity, and build the club also within the locker room, within the group, and so far it's been a real blessing; there have been some great guys that they brought out here that are very professional. We've created a really good group and I'm just really excited of what's coming here to Jacksonville — such a passionate town, a passionate ownership group that are in it to do big things."
Are there any hard feelings towards Orlando City, the club that, as he said, he gave everything to for four years? Nope. Gallardo still follows the team in MLS, and says he plans on being a City fan for the rest of his life.
"The one thing that maybe I was a little upset about was that I didn't know anything literally until the last day, nobody ever told me anything, but that's okay. No hard feelings, I really hope the best for Orlando." he said.
Gallardo also admitted that he was playing under a lot of pressure for Orlando City in 2014, constantly thinking about what he needed to do to make sure he was one of the players kept around when the club officially made its move to MLS, and that playing in Jacksonville has changed his perspective on the game.
"The last couple years I played under a lot of pressure because I felt I couldn't make a mistake, otherwise someone else might be brought on, and maybe the next guy that came in would be allowed to make mistakes because he wouldn't be under the pressure that I was under," he said. "But, it made me grow as a person, it made me grow as a goalkeeper, and now that I'm here in Jacksonville I feel like I'm playing my best futból because I don't have that pressure I had in Orlando.I learned from my mistake of not enjoying my everyday life as a soccer player because of all the things that were going on around. Now, here in Jacksonville, I learned that I just need to enjoy myself and do the best thing that I can do and play my best futból.
"I feel the best that I've ever felt, and I'm hungry for more, I want to achieve more. I want to play in MLS, but right now, here in the NASL I'm super happy. It's a super-competitive league. I've had opportunities to maybe go overseas, but right now because of my family situation, because Jacksonville is such a great town and everyone embraced me, I want to give them the best that I can."