Welcome to the refreshed The Mane Land! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams. If you’d like to do the same, head over to the FanPosts to begin. We’re collecting all of the stories here (see below for details of our fan contest). Come Fan With Us!
I had heard Orlando was getting a minor league soccer team a few months before the 2011 season began and I had made a mental note to drop in and catch a game. At the time, my daughter had been playing travel soccer on a State Cup team and I had been getting more and more into the sport over the previous few years, catching games from England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Colombia, Brazil, and even Ecuador through various cable channels. It began as a way for me to study tactics, formations, and techniques to help my kid, but I soon grew to love any competitive soccer and would watch GolTV for hours.
I attended my first professional game as a kid, when my grandfather took me to the Meadowlands in New Jersey to watch the old NASL’s New York Cosmos crush the San Diego Sockers, 5-0. My late grandfather (or “Granda,” as I knew him) was from a town on the outskirts of Newcastle and brought his love of the beautiful game with him when he arrived in the U.S. from England, when my mother was still a few years shy of her 10th birthday. I never forgot that first game at Giants Stadium that my Granda took me to.
I’d also been to see the Columbus Crew a couple of times on visits home, as they were my hometown MLS team, but they didn’t start up until the year I graduated from college and moved away, so even though I kind of had a rooting interest in them, I felt disconnected as I was living in Texas, then New York, then South Florida, and — finally — Orlando. I had never seen a live professional soccer club representing the city I was actually living in before. That would be a new experience.
I wanted to go to Orlando City’s home opener, but life got in the way. Things continued to come up and keep me away from the Citrus Bowl week after week. When I heard Newcastle was coming to town for a friendly in late July, however, I had no more excuses. This was the club my grandfather had been to see when he was young. I knew it was finally time to make an Orlando City match a priority.
When I arrived at the stadium, the first word I thought of was “fun.” There were booths giving away trinkets and raffling prizes. There were contests and games. There was a band giving a concert. This wasn’t a sporting event. It was a party.
I went to that match along with a couple other soccer dads with kids on that East Orange Soccer Club travel team. We got decent seats close-ish to midfield and settled in, thinking our little minor league squad would get run over by the Premier League side, but hoping we could give them a game.
Some of the names on the visiting side were familiar to me, having seen Newcastle on television — manager Alan Pardew and players like Jonas Gutierrez, Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba, and a few others. None of the names on the home side rang any bells. That would change.
I’d learn some names that day from the team in red — no iconic purple kits just yet — like Miguel Gallardo, Kevin Molino, Jamie Watson, Rob Valentino, Lewis Neal, Yordany Alvarez, and Dennis Chin. These are the players that stood out for me not only that day but forever, as I returned for more games, including the playoff run that year on the way to the championship. That day they began as strangers to me, but by the time the game ended, they were more like hometown heroes, regardless of where they (or I) came from.
Newcastle clearly didn’t expect such fight from a minor league American team. Valentino, Watson, Neal, Alvarez, and Mechack Jerome continually stepped into passing lanes to break up play. As the supporters beat on drums, the Lions seemed to keep that same rhythm on the pitch. It was mesmerizing.
English teams aren’t expected to be in top form in July, but I wasn’t going to excuse Newcastle on this day. This was a team that regularly went toe to toe with big clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, etc. Individually, they should be expected to beat their man when playing some second (or third) division side from the U.S. But as the game wore on, Orlando City grew stronger in the heat and humidity while the visitors were sapped by the oppressive Florida weather and relentless host team.
Gallardo made heroic saves when called upon but there was a growing sense that Orlando City could take something from the match. The Lions were getting closer to a breakthrough. A shot would fizz just wide of goal or players would be just inches away from linking up. It was coming. You could feel it.
Then Molino scored. The Citrus Bowl erupted. It was less than half full but it still sounded in full voice. The visiting Toon Army was stunned. And it could have been 2-0 or worse for the visitors if not for a couple of desperate saves down the stretch.
When the game kicked off, I was an interested party. When the final whistle blew, I was in love with a football club.
That one friendly match turned into a passion. The Citrus Bowl became a regular destination for me and I attended games until the team relocated to the Disney campus during stadium renovations. Although I didn’t attend those matches at ESPN Wide World of Sports, I kept up through game streams, news reports on TV, and online stories.
Soon, MLS became a conversation and then a reality. A sports blogger covering college football and basketball for the previous several years, I began to plan out a site that would provide news, analysis, and context for fans of the team. I knew some folks at SB Nation and reached out, in hopes that my dumb little idea would blossom and grow. It did. I found some like-minded, talented, passionate kindred spirits who wanted to grow our free Wordpress site into something. The folks at SB Nation took notice of our content, voice, tone, and professionalism — and mostly, I like to think, our passion. They accepted us into the fold in late 2014 and the rest is Mane Land history.
None of what we’ve done over the past (almost) three years here would have happened without my visit to the Citrus Bowl that July night in 2011. That’s where and when I let a minor league soccer team get under my skin and plant a flag in my heart.
It was love at first sight.
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