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Our City: The USMNT Could Have a Fortress in Orlando

Before the game, many talked up Orlando’s imposing new soccer-specific stadium as a possible fortress for the U.S. And Orlando delivered.

Soccer: 2018 World Cup Qualifier-Panama at USA Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Our City is a weekly column dedicated to the culture surrounding soccer in Orlando and Major League Soccer.

This past Wednesday, in anticipation of Friday’s United States Men’s National Team match-up with Panama in a World Cup qualifier in Orlando, MLSsoccer.com Senior Editor Arielle Castillo proposed that Orlando City Stadium could become a national team fortress. On Wednesday, that thesis sounded like the right kind of article to build excitement in the lead-up to an important game in a place that hasn’t hosted the USMNT in almost two decades. After Friday’s demolition of Panama, 4-0 in front of a sold-out and rowdy pro-American crowd, Castillo’s piece resonated. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this?

Castillo’s argument centered around Orlando being “Columbus-like” in both the way fans turn out for matches as well as the energy and enthusiasm the city has for the game. Obvious contradictions are considered, including our Caribbean-esque humidity and heat, and the shorter trip for CONCACAF teams.

I would add to the negative column for national team games, our multi-culturalism. A positive on Orlando City game days, but games against Caribbean and Central American teams would certainly draw opposing fans, as happened with a significant contingent of Panamanian fans on Friday. Still, this number wasn’t significant to change the overall crowd make-up and added a nice level of support for the away side. Ideally, in future matches, an “away” section would help to better organize support for both sides.

I contemplated a few of the positives for an “American national team fortress” milling through the crowd and striking up conversations with men and women wearing all sorts of red, white, and blue clothing options. Many had made their way to Orlando relatively easy with cheap fares that have always encouraged travel to the City Beautiful. While some were here specifically for the game, many had orchestrated long weekends with plans for the theme parks or heading to the beach. This has long been a draw for Orlando’s opposition fans.

The fans I spoke to from Cincinnati and Seattle raved about the atmosphere in comparison to other USMNT games they had been to around the country. They added that Orlando City Stadium felt “very European, very English Premier League.”

Still, if the significant shout of “Knights!” during the national anthem is any indication, the crowd was significantly made up of Orlando soccer fans. Meaning, as Castillo had predicted, Orlando indeed turns out for both club and country.

And come out Orlando did, with energy and enigmatic chants bouncing from all corners of the stadium, even after the USMNT had all but secured the game, and with it, another important step towards righting the faltering qualifying run for the World Cup in Russia. Chants began in the longer than usual ticket lines and could be heard late into the night around downtown Orlando’s Orange Avenue, the heart of the city and its nightlife.

If one game can predict a trend, the USMNT may have found a bit of mojo at Orlando City Stadium, enough to start thinking of the city and its soccer-specific stadium in the future for big matches. Big soccer cities like Columbus, Portland, and Seattle have long been the favored venues for important matches. For a team with no national stadium, the USMNT, and U.S. Women’s National Team for that matter, have had to look for home field advantage wherever they can. If one beautiful night in Orlando is to be believed, maybe that list of cities ready to host the national team and give them a home field boost in big games just got a little longer.

So what do you think? Were you in the stadium Friday? Do you think Orlando’s stadium and crowd were the boost the USMNT needed?