College football has always been king in Gainesville. There's nothing quite like the humid fall nights when tens of thousands of people travel from all over the state to watch the Gators play. The city was built on orange and blue, from advertisements to sidewalk paint, any chance to attach themselves to the University's brand.
But there has been a small change to the sports fans in this sleepy, North Florida town. Gainesville is still full of Southern pride and institutions that have lasted for over a century. Unlike Central and South Florida, soccer does not take easily here. But lately, in the spring and summer, when the Gators lie dormant, Gainesville has begun to turn purple.
There has been an underlying love for the beautiful game in this city for several years. Becky Burleigh's 20-year reign at James G. Pressly Stadium for the University of Florida soccer team has produced one national championship and numerous SEC titles. Abby Wambach will forever be the icon of women's soccer in Gainesville, but several other prominent national team players have been produced under Burleigh's tutelage.
The latest is Christen Westphal, drafted third overall by the Boston Breakers in this year's NWSL College Draft, and there are several young Gators involved in the American youth setup who have potential to be key contributors in the professional ranks. These women built the base for soccer in a city that traditionally scorns it. Gainesville is still a traditionally conservative town with no time for soccer, its blue-collar residents more focused on baseball and football. But with the diversity that the university brings, change was bound to come.
I will always remember the summer of 2011; I was a freshman in the dorms and, like most students, it was an exciting time of meeting new people from all over the country. The summer of 2011 was also notable for the Women's World Cup, where the United States lost tragically to Japan in the final. For every match, the boys in the hall would huddle around small televisions in several rooms (there wasn't one large enough for us all to crowd around) and would rush into the hallways whenever we would score.
There was no louder celebration than at 104' in the final when Wambach headed home what we all thought was the winner. A bunch of guys who hardly knew each other were jumping and hugging in tight hallways over a game hardly any of us liked. The patriotism was what connected us then, but perhaps there were a few converts that night, even though the United States came away empty handed.
Soccer fandom in general has been quiet since then. Sure, you'd spot the odd Manchester United or Real Madrid top around campus, the dorms would be full of FIFA tournaments, and you could always count on the Gainesville Gooners to show up to House of Beer on the weekends. But in 2015, there was a distinct difference to how people approached soccer thanks to Orlando City's jump to MLS.
The influence that Orlando has on Gainesville's culture is often understated. With students constantly relocating from the City Beautiful and businesses expanding northward, Orlando has left an unmistakable footprint. With Orlando City's newfound prominence and accessibility, they have joined the fold.
Purple is a staple on campus. It's hard to walk around town with a lion on your shirt and not have one or two people shout "Go City!" in your direction. Those from Orlando are proud of the representation, those who love soccer are glad to have a major league team within driving distance. Gainesville has its fair share of season ticket holders, supporters' group members, and watch parties now. Magnets may not be on every car, but they are commonplace enough.
It seems obvious that Gainesville's Sunday league would be ground zero for the soccer revolution. It's not out of place to hear discussions of Orlando City's tactics on the sidelines. Sunday matches for the Lions create a bit of a conundrum, though, as attendance can be spotty because players have planned road trips south to tailgate before the game.
The city league is also where newcomers can come to experience the game in a more personal environment. Those who were interested by the European leagues or Orlando can be found scattered about C Division teams in an attempt to understand the game more. After they walk away battered and winded, more often than not upset at a referee who had given what they thought was an incorrect offside call, they go back to their friends and roommates as sort of witnesses of the sport. As the Gainesville Regional Soccer League grows -- there are 20 teams participating in this summer's league, with more inquiring about spots every season -- so does the knowledge of the sport. It also helps when there's crossover the other way as well, like Pedro Ribeiro, David Mateos, and Estrela visiting the Swamp for the Gators' Homecoming game in November.
Now more than ever, Orlando City fans are popping up everywhere in Gainesville. With City matches hosted on ESPN and FOX Sports, the team is seemingly always on at bars and pubs across town. When I wore my purple jersey this past Sunday, I was stopped by several people asking if I had seen Kevin Molino's stunning equalizer against New York City FC. Whether it was cashiers at Publix or friends that I had no idea even watched soccer, there was a buzz around town and it's not limited to the young crowd. While most of the fans are of college-age, there's no limit to who joins in on the festivities. I've run into the middle-aged decked out in purple and whole families wearing Lions gear.
Regardless of sport, there has never been one pro team as unifying as Orlando City in this part of the state. With the smattering of Magic, Heat, Jaguars, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Lightning, Panthers, Marlins, and Rays fans about town, fan bases have been at odds. Perhaps because Orlando City stands alone in the region, there is a better chance for the support to grow. But as that support keeps spreading, the caravans from Gainesville to Orlando on match days will get longer. The watch parties will spread and the supporter numbers will balloon.
A special circumstance has allowed soccer to grow to new heights in a part of Florida many never would have suspected. It has filled a void in a sport-crazed city and can only grow stronger from here as the grassroots, word-of-mouth movement continues to change the opinion of a city.