Prior to Orlando's raucous first MLS game ever, there was a lot of doubt as to whether Central Florida was a market that could sustain an MLS club. Most of this doubt stemmed from memories of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny. These were two MLS clubs based in Florida that were both disbanded due to low revenue numbers. Understandably, many analysts were skeptical of Orlando City.
Yet most of that skepticism was brushed away on that very special opening weekend at what is now known as Camping World Stadium. Orlando's fans came out and supported their team in full force. This was not just a one-time deal either. Since then, Orlando City has held the honor of having the second-most attendance in each of its two seasons.
While Orlando City definitely proved it could draw great crowds, there is much more expected of expansion clubs. To know what else is expected, first you have to identify what the goal of expanding the league is. When you talk to commissioner Don Garber, he always makes it very clear that his job is to make sure that MLS grows in the "right" way and not just a quick way. A big part of that is expansion. There are many markets around North America that would love to have an MLS club and Garber is aware of that. His main justification for expansion is to expose new markets to soccer and spread the league's popularity all around North America.
In the case of Orlando City, Garber's goal has been fully accomplished. The attendance numbers speak for themselves but there is more to the success of Orlando. If you pass through the City Beautiful on game day you will realize it is a soccer town. Garber's hope is that this soccer enthusiasm can spread out from Orlando to other parts of Florida. Only time will tell whether this does occur but one thing is for sure: If Miami finally gets its long awaited club then American soccer will definitely become a part of Floridian culture.
Another factor in growing the MLS fan base is the quality of play. This is something MLS has been criticized for ever since its inception. The main argument people make is that the quality is not up to the standards of Europe's top leagues. While this is quite true, the league is always taking steps to improve the quality. A massive turning point in MLS history was the signing of its first ever Designated Player, David Beckham. In terms of growth, the creation of the Designated Player — a player who could earn above the league's maximum salary — drastically changed the league. Garber even described this time as that start of a new era, known as MLS 2.0.
Beckham was just the first of many international stars to come to MLS. The league's quality and appeal grew tremendously through the performances of players like Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Robbie Keane. Orlando City also contributed to this growth through the acquisition of Brazilian star Kaká. In many ways, Kaká has been the biggest name to ever come to MLS. He still holds the record as the only MLS player to have ever won the FIFA World Player of the Year Award.
While the international stars were nice to have, most analysts believe it was unsustainable simply because most of these stars were near the end of their careers and weren't bringing much to the league other than popularity. Garber’s response was to encourage clubs to find younger DPs, who weren’t near the end of their careers and coming here to relax and collect a high salary for a few more years.
Many younger DPs have been brought into the league and with them have come a new energy. The most prominent example would be Miguel Almiron, Atlanta’s new 23-year-old Paraguayan attacker, who is expected to be a star immediately. Orlando’s example would be the signing of Carlos Rivas — Orlando’s Young Designated Player. While Rivas has not exactly been what everyone expected, he is still young and seems to be adapting well to his new role playing off of Cyle Larin.
Lastly, another big problem MLS has had is the usage of turf fields, something Orlando has suffered from as well. The simple solution is to build a soccer-specific stadium, which is becoming a trend in the U.S. as of late. As you may have heard by now, Orlando recently built its own beautiful soccer-specific stadium, once again pleasing Garber and continuing the growth of Major League Soccer. Hopefully the new stadium will also help us grow as a club and finally reach the playoffs.