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'Father of Orlando Soccer' Saw the City Beautiful's Success Coming Three Decades Ago

Mark Dillon, who helped found and coach the Orlando Lions back in the 1980s and '90s, spoke after the alumni game on his thoughts about the match and the success of soccer in Orlando.

Orlando City SC

On Saturday, Oct. 22, the first ever Orlando City Alumni Game was played. The Orlando City Alumni played against the Tampa Bay Rowdies' alumni. Players from all walks of Orlando soccer history turned out to participate in the match. For those wanting more info on the roster, you can find our comprehensive list here, while there are also a few highlights of the game, which you can find here.

It was a highly contested match between mostly guys in their 40s, and a few recently retired players. Orlando was down 1-0 at half and ended up letting in two other goals in the 75th and 79th minutes. It looked bleak, but USL Pro vet Rob Valentino led the charge for the Lions alumni to score two goals in the span of three minutes. Valentino scored the first and assisted on the second, but in the end the rally fell short. Despite the result, a few hundred fans and supporters turned out to see some old faces take the field once again.

The coach of the Orlando alumni team was none other than local soccer legend, Mark Dillon. Back in 1985, Dillon founded the Orlando Lions as a semi-pro team and eventually led them into the pros and the American Soccer League in 1987. Dillon was the coach of three iterations of pro soccer teams in the late '80s and '90s, all the while growing the brand of soccer in Orlando. Saturday night was his first time seeing his former players back on the pitch and he relished the opportunity to coach them once again.

"Well, they're quite a lot older and a lot uglier," Dillon said of his former players. "But, it was a lot of fun to see the guys and a lot of them have stayed active and they've been involved in coaching over the years and have been able to give back to the community and tonight I think we raised about $6,000 for the Orlando City Foundation. It was a great event, it was great to see all the guys, and everything else."

While coaching, Dillon took it upon himself to help get the World Cup to Orlando in 1994, start youth soccer academies around the city, and grow the brand of soccer in Central Florida in general. Even back then, Dillon knew the potential Orlando had as a soccer market.

"I saw it 30 years ago and a lot of people said that Orlando wasn't going to be a soccer town, that we were always going to be a second-rate, second-league town," he said. "This has really been a sleeping giant and you could see how the town itself has changed, and the demographic complexion has changed, and the growth of the city itself and a pent-up demand for soccer in this town. We were a little bit early, but we laid a foundation. We see all these guys out here continually contributing to the game and everything, it's great. This has become a really great soccer town."

Despite not being able to get the first iteration of pro soccer in Orlando to take off, Dillon is still proud that he was able to play a part in what has now become one of the most popular sporting events in Orlando.

"We did it when it was, in many ways, an underground sport," said Dillon. "It was very difficult for us and the players paid a lot of dues. They did a lot of special work in this town, so I think it's tremendous that the club today honors them and remembers that it didn't happen overnight. This has been a soccer town, and MLS has been a 30-year process."