We’re two games into the existence of Orlando City Stadium as an MLS venue and the early signs are quite encouraging for Lions fans. The club has gone two-for-two so far, with victories over two of last season’s Eastern Conference playoff teams – you know, the teams Orlando will be battling for a coveted postseason spot. It’s been a great start to the season so far, and the new stadium has played a big role.
From my experience in the stands, I can say confidently that the new stadium presents an entirely new atmosphere that has to be encouraging to the home side and intimidating for the visitors. The metal roof, below-street-level pitch, steep build of the stands, and proximity of the fans to the field all combine to create a hostile environment for opposing players.
Orlando spent much of opening day defending resolutely against a potent NYCFC attack and aside from a couple of highlight saves from Joe Bendik, there wasn’t much chance the visitors were going to score. It always felt like it was going to take something lucky or special for David Villa and company to equalize.
The Lions have conceded once in two games at home this season. Orlando City kept opponents to one goal or no goals on eight occasions last season in 18 competitive matches (17 MLS games and one U.S. Open Cup clash). That has already happened twice in two tries in 2017 in the new building. The Lions won six times at home in MLS play in 2016 and are already a third of the way to that total this season.
The more intimate setting that Orlando City Stadium provides is louder and more raucous than what we experienced in Camping World Stadium (formerly the Citrus Bowl). It creates a much more difficult atmosphere for visiting teams and that impact hasn’t gone unnoticed by those who have traveled to Orlando so far this season.
After his team’s opening day loss to Orlando, New York City FC Head Coach Patrick Vieira said the OCS crowd affected the game.
“I think it is a terrific stadium and looking at the atmosphere tonight the fans were a big impact,” said Vieira. “They are behind the team. They support the team. A huge impact tonight.”
Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin similarly said that the purple din played a part on Saturday.
"Obviously credit to Orlando and their fans and the atmosphere here because we started the first half very poorly,” he said.
Sometimes just affecting the start of the game is enough. In 2016, visiting teams scored eight goals in the first 20 minutes of games against the Lions played in Orlando. So far, it hasn’t happened in 2017, although obviously it’s a small sample size.
Philadelphia Union striker CJ Sapong played in Orlando during the club’s USL days. He’s seen the transformation of the atmosphere at Orlando City matches from USL, to MLS at the Citrus Bowl, to the new stadium.
“Since I played here, I could have seen it happening, but you can never really put it into a picture – what it could be – and [Saturday] it was on another level,” Sapong said. “I know a lot of us on the field definitely took in the environment as much as possible. It's a beautiful thing they have going on here, and it's good for them but it's also good for our league.”
We’ll find out a lot more about the stadium as well as the 2017 Lions over the course of the next 15 home games. But the early returns from Orlando City Stadium are quite positive and should encourage fans to continue making life difficult for the opposition.