On Saturday afternoon, Orlando City took on St. Louis FC of the USL in its final tune-up before the season starts this Sunday. While the importance of most preseason games is considered minimal, this weekend’s game held extra significance.
Home games are crucial in sports. The crowd and surroundings often give the hosts an advantage against visiting opposition. But that advantage only exists if the players are used to their home stadium.
While the Orlando City players had previously toured the stadium, Saturday’s game was the first time the team would take the field. Even though the stadium remains unfinished, though it is expected to be completed by Sunday, the opportunity for the players to dress in the locker room, walk through the tunnel, and play on the freshly-cut Bermuda grass allows the players to take in the experience in a game with no points on the line.
But there’s more to it than playing in the stadium.
Most athletes are creatures of habit. On game days, they like to have a specific routine from when they wake up to what they’ll eat and how they’ll drive to the stadium. Several Orlando City players had developed routines for home game days over the past two years, which included getting to the Citrus Bowl/Camping World Stadium. But, with the opening of the new stadium, new routines must be formed.
Even if it’s only one game, the opportunity to have an actual game day in the new stadium allows players to find a routine that works for them, making the season opener on Sunday feel like a normal day at work. Given that the opposition will have to travel down to Orlando and play in a stadium they’ve yet to see in person, this will give the Lions a decided advantage in addition to the home fans.
Obviously, there will be certain aspects of the first game that will not be able to be replicated. Most notably, while Saturday’s game was in an empty stadium other than a handful of employees and media, Sunday’s game will be in front of raucous crowd of 25,500. But that impact will be much less for the players than following a routine as the players are used to playing in front of large crowds.
The fact that Orlando City’s final preseason game was in its new stadium was crucial in preparing the team for the upcoming season. Allowing the players to experience a game day in their new home will increase their comfort level as they take on a formidable opponent in New York City FC on Sunday. And who knows, that comfort at the start could be the difference when the final whistle blows.